WASHINGTON—The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty joined in a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling that a 40-foot cross on government land violates the U.S. Constitution.
The Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Md., was dedicated in 1925 to honor 49 veterans from Prince George’s County who died in World War I.
The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the case of The American Legion v. American Humanist Association that the cross is an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity. However, in a dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Roger Gregory asserted the Latin Cross could be interpreted in a nonreligious way as a war memorial.
‘Desacralize the most sacred symbol of Christianity’
The legal brief, written by church-state scholar Douglas Laycock, who holds endowed chairs both at the University of Texas and the University of Virginia, takes issue with Gregory’s assertion. Any claim that the cross has a predominantly secular meaning “would desacralize the most sacred symbol of Christianity,” Laycock insists.
“Using the cross to honor our nation’s war dead reflects either the erroneous assumption that our military is comprised entirely of Christians, or the equally erroneous assumption that the most sacred symbol of Christianity somehow honors non-Christians as well,” Laycock writes.
The cross specifically holds meaning for Christians because of the uniquely Christian belief that Christ’s death and resurrection offer hope of eternal life for his followers, he notes.
“If this court says that a Latin cross is predominantly secular, then words and symbols have no meaning, and the court has consigned the Establishment Clause (of the First Amendment) to the world of Alice in Wonderland,” Laycock writes.
The Baptist Joint Committee joined with the American Jewish Committee, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in filing the brief.
“Our brief makes plain what should go without saying: The cross is the most recognizable symbol of the central promise of Christianity,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee.
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“While Christians commonly display the cross to promote Christian teachings as revealed in Scripture, the government should not. The cross is a symbol that is specific to Christianity, and the government’s efforts to claim otherwise are hollow and offensive.
“In order to maintain a government-sponsored cross, the government and its supporters simultaneously betray the principle of religious neutrality and demean religion. People of all faith traditions are harmed when the government violates its fundamental obligation to remain neutral between religions.”
Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are scheduled Feb. 27.