Thursday, October 19, 2017
The state of Maryland owns and maintains a 40 foot "Latin Cross" situated on a traffic island taking up one-third of an acre at the busy intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, Md. Reversing the district judge, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the government cross violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause in a divided opinion in American Humanist Association v. Maryland-Capital Park and Planning Commission.
The panel was unanimous in its conclusion that the challengers, both the association and individuals, had standing: The individuals, for example, alleged "specific unwelcome direct contact with the Cross; that is, they have each regularly encountered the Cross as residents while driving in the area, the Commission caused such injury by displaying the Cross, and the relief sought -- enjoining the display of the Cross -- would redress their injury."
The judges disagreed, however, regarding the application of the Establishment Clause. In the well-reasoned majority opinion by Judge Thacker, the passive monument rule of the plurality in Van Orden v. Perry (2005) is not conclusive, especially given Justice Breyer's concurrence which stressed factors for determining whether or not the monument should be deemed passive and further stressed that the well-established Lemon test from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) remained a "useful guidepost." The majority thus analyzed the case "pursuant to the three-prong test in Lemon with due consideration given to the factors outlined in Van Orden."
The court first found that there was a legitimate secular purpose to the cross, considering that it was erected to local soldiers who died in World War I. As to the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion prong, the court engaged in a detailed analysis of the symbol of the cross, and found it specifically Christian. It rejected the argument that in Europe, the Latin Cross might be a neutral symbol for the war dead of World War I. Further, the fact that this cross had been in place for 90 years was not determinative and the secular symbols accompanying the cross were also not sufficient:
the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones. The Cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection, standing four stories tall, and overshadowing the other monuments, the tallest of which is only ten feet tall and located approximately 200 feet from the Cross. The other monuments composing the Veterans Memorial Park are anywhere from 200 feet away to a half-mile away. The immense size and prominence of the Cross necessarily “evokes a message of aggrandizement and universalization of religion, and not the message of individual memorialization and remembrance that is presented by a field of gravestones.”
Thus, a "reasonable observer" - - - most likely viewing the 40 foot cross from the highway - - - would fairly understand the Cross to have the primary effect of endorsing religion. This is even true, the court reasoned, if the reasonable observer knew the history of the cross as memoralizing the war dead, because then this reasonable observer would also know that the original private organizers of the cross monument pledged "devotion to faith in God, and that same observer knows that Christian-only religious activities have taken place at the Cross.
On the third "excessive entanglement" prong of Lemon, the court found that additionally
displaying the Cross, particularly given its size, history, and context, amounts to excessive entanglement because the Commission is displaying the hallmark symbol of Christianity in a manner that dominates its surroundings and not only overwhelms all other monuments at the park, but also excludes all other religious tenets. The display aggrandizes the Latin cross in a manner that says to any reasonable observer that the Commission either places Christianity above other faiths, views being American and Christian as one in the same, or both.
Dissenting, Chief Judge Gregory argued that
the majority misapplies Lemon and Van Orden to the extent that it subordinates the Memorial’s secular history and elements while focusing on the obvious religious nature of Latin crosses themselves; constructs a reasonable observer who ignores certain elements of the Memorial and reaches unreasonable conclusions; and confuses maintenance of a highway median and monument in a state park with excessive religious entanglement.
For the dissenting judge, the large size of the cross is only one factor that a reasonable observer would notice and the majority's opinion would lead to a rule that all "large crosses are unconstitutional despite any amount of secular history and context" if the the crosses were on government land.
Given the continuing and renewed debates about the entwinement of Christianity and government, this may be a plausible candidate for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.
[image from the opinion's appendix].