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The Iconoclasts Come For World War I Memorials


It seems the iconoclasts have graduated from tearing down the Civil War monuments to World War I memorials. A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a 40-foot-tall monument erected nearly a century ago just outside the nation’s capital in Bladensburg, Md., known locally as the Peace Cross and dedicated to 49 residents of Prince George’s County who died on the battlefields of France during the First World War, is unconstitutional because it’s in the shape of a Latin cross.

The 2-1 ruling of the Fourth Circuit Court avers that because the memorial sits on public land maintained with public funds, it “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion.” That of course is precisely the argument made by the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based lobby for atheists, who seem to think memorial crosses on public property constitute government establishment of religion (let’s hope they don’t wander into Arlington National Cemetery).

At first glance, this appears to be a slightly different argument than the one advanced by proponents of removing Confederate memorials—that we must not honor, and should not even remember, those who fought to preserve slavery—but in fact it shares a common goal with the Civil War iconoclasts: undermine the idea of America by destroying our shared memory.

The Fourth Circuit inserted itself into this widening culture war by deciding that references to religion, even an indirect reference like a cross honoring fallen veterans, must be purged from the public square. This isn’t a matter of state sponsorship of religion, or even public displays of religion. The cross in question—built in 1925 with funding from local families and The American Legion—serves the same purpose that memorial crosses across the country do: as symbols of sacrifice and mourning, and to honor the war dead.

The Supreme Court Already Weighed In on This Question

Don’t take my word for it. Writing for a 5-4 majority in the 2010 Supreme Court case Salazar v. Buono, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the cross “is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs” but a symbol “often used to honor and respect” heroism. “Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

In the Salazar case, a man named Frank Buono filed suit in a California federal district court over a cross erected in the Mojave National Preserve. That cross was first erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and like the cross in Prince George’s Country, it’s a memorial to those who died in World War I. Like the American Humanist Association, Buono argued the display of the cross on federal land violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The district court agreed, and like the Confederate statues in Charlottesville that were recently covered with black tarps, the cross was covered with a plywood box.

While an appeal was pending, Congress intervened. It designated the cross a national memorial and barred federal funds from being used to dismantle it, then effected a land swap so the cross would be on private land. Buono objected to this as well, and the lower courts agreed. The Supreme Court did not. Kennedy wrote that, “The land-transfer statute embodies Congress’s legislative judgment that this dispute is best resolved through a framework and policy of accommodation for a symbol that, while challenged under the Establishment Clause, has complex meaning beyond the expression of religious views.”

The bottom line, though, is that “the Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.” Nevertheless, the case was sent back to the lower courts. Kennedy reasoned that, “To date, the court’s jurisprudence in this area has refrained from making sweeping pronouncements, and this case is ill suited for announcing categorical rules.” Conservative members of the court like Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts thought the land swap was lawful and that there was no need to send the case back. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed only to the outcome, but in separate opinions said that Buono had no standing and should not have been allowed even to challenge Congress’s action.

Destroying Our Shared Symbols Is a Mistake

Now it seems the Supreme Court will have to make a more definitive ruling. After all, the cross in Bladensburg isn’t the only war monument being challenged by atheists. The American Humanist Association has also sued the city of Pensacola, Fla., over a cross that’s stood in the city’s Bayview Park for 75 years, built on the eve of World War II. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward has described the cross as “a community gathering place, an integral part of my town’s fabric, a symbol to our local citizens — religious and non-religious — of our proud history of coming together during hard times.” That case is on its way to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The idea that the public display of a Christian cross in America should be verboten is, as Kennedy noted, deeply anti-American. Our landscape is indelibly marked by crosses honoring our war dead. At Arlington National Cemetery, the 24-foot Cross of Sacrifice has stood for 90 years, a gift from Canada to honor the Americans who joined the Canadian army fighting in Europe before the United States joined the war. The Argonne Cross at Arlington marks the graves of more than 2,000 Americans whose remains were reinterred in 1920 from battlefield cemeteries in Europe. Even in the small town of Taos, New Mexico, a large cross erected in 1960 honors the local men who served in the Philippines during World War II and endured the Bataan Death March and years of brutal captivity. The last local survivor of that ordeal passed away last December.

We need these symbols to stand, now more than ever. Not because every veteran who died in our foreign wars was a Christian, but because the Christian faith and its symbols are a profound part of our shared past—a past we ignore or repudiate to our detriment. U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Union Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once wrote, “We live by symbols, and what shall be symbolized by any image of the sight depends on the mind of him who sees it.” But Holmes was not criticizing symbols because of their subjectivity, he was affirming that they are powerful because they override and envelope individual experiences into a unified whole. “It is all a symbol, if you like,” he wrote. “But so is the flag.”