Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether or not a 100‐year‐old veterans memorial in Maryland should be torn down.
Why does this case matter?
The Justices decision in The American Legion v. American Humanists Association could have profound implications for religious liberty. You see, the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial just happens to be cross‐shaped; its design chosen by the Gold‐Star mothers, whose 49 sons perished on the battlefields of Europe, to reflect the crosses dotting American graves in Western Europe. The memorial stood for almost 100 years without objection until the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit arguing that the memorial violates the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment. They add, “the symbol is not embraced by non‐Christians as their symbol of sacrifice and is, indeed, offensive to some.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with the humanists, concluding that the memorial, which sits on public ground, violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing a religion.
First Liberty Institute, representing The American Legion, appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and now, the Justices are the last hope for preserving the memorial. While preserving the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial is certainly a noble and worthy undertaking, this case goes further than one memorial. Attorneys for First Liberty are arguing that this case provides the Supreme Court a unique opportunity to clarify its interpretation of the First Amendment, especially the Establishment Clause.
Rather than restrain government, the four decades of case law since the Supreme Court’s Lemon v. Kurtzman decision interpreting the Establishment Clause has led to hostility to religion because of the variety of confusing, court‐created tests. Local officials, not knowing what to do and fearing lawsuits, ban expressions of religion just to be safe. This creates a government hostile to religion, something the Founders never intended and something at which they would be appalled.
First Liberty Institute argues that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses guarantee the right to be free of government coercion, not the right to avoid religion altogether.
The mere existence of a religious display in public doesn’t coerce anyone to believe anything. That the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial recalls the cross‐shaped gravestones of Europe should never constitutionally disqualify its display on public property.
Recent polling commissioned by First Liberty and conducted by George Barna found that 84 percent of Americans agree that the Bladensburg memorial should remain. But much more is at stake in this week’s case. The Supreme Court could correct decades of flawed First Amendment jurisprudence and restore a more historically‐grounded test that protects religious liberty by preventing the suppression and compulsion of religious exercise.