BLADENSBURG – A marble and cement cross stands 40 feet tall in Bladensburg at the intersection of Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1.
It bears a bronze plaque with the names of the 49 men from Prince George’s County who died in World War I, along with a quote from President Woodrow Wilson. Along each side of the base are the words, “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” and “Devotion.”
Although a U.S. Appeals Court found that the state’s maintenance of the cross, known as the Peace Cross, is unconstitutional, local officials hope the memorial will remain for years to come.
In a 2-1 ruling on Oct. 18, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled the cross violates the Establishment Clause, as “the monument here has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion.”
The appeals court reversed a District Court judge’s 2015 decision that the state had a valid secular reason for maintaining the cross, which is part of a larger war memorial park.
Three Prince George’s residents and the American Humanist Association filed the lawsuit against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) and the American Legion.
Following World War I, private donors collected funds for the memorial. The Snyder-Farm Post of the American Legion picked up the costs once the donors ran out of money, and construction finished in 1925.
In 1961, the M-NCPPC acquired the Peace Cross and the land it is built on due to safety concerns, since it is located near a busy intersection. The M-NCPPC has spent $117,000 for maintenance and repairs for the cross. In 2008, it set aside an additional $100,000 for future renovations. As of 2015, the organization had spent $5,000 those funds.
Local leaders in Prince George’s disagree with the court’s decision.
“I’m very surprised, and rather, I guess you could say disturbed,” said County Councilwoman Andrea Harrison, whose district includes Bladensburg. “That whole statue, that monument there, is really a symbol for recognizing and appreciating all those who have given their lives in wars for this country, and that’s all that it is. I’m just so surprised that there is even an uproar about it.”
She said as a lifelong resident of Prince George’s County, she has never heard of any opposition to the Peace Cross before this lawsuit.
“(Veterans) have given a lot of themselves, their families have given a lot, and to be so hostile – that’s the only word I could come up with – that is absolutely mind-blowing.”
Sadara Barrow, mayor of Colmar Manor, a jurisdiction near the memorial, said she does not perceive the cross as an overt Christian symbol.
“I’m not a Christian,” she said. “I was born and raised as Muslim, and I have never seen the cross as a religious cross.”
She said she thinks of the monument as “sacred” because it is part of a larger war memorial park.
Tracy Farrish Grant, mayor of Edmonston, another nearby jurisdiction, also does not believe the cross is a violation of the separation between church and state.
“It’s been there for years. I can’t see how it’s offending anyone,” Grant said. “It’s dedicated to the World War I veterans, the lives that were lost. And it’s pretty much sacred. We honor those (veterans).”
Harrison said her community members recognize the cross as a symbol of veterans’ sacrifice.
“Those who fought, who died, who lost limbs, those family members of those individuals, that’s what this monument is all about. For members of my community, that’s what we look to, what we look at. We honor those who fought to give themselves for us,” she said.
The court’s decision states that its ruling does not mean that the cross must be torn down or its arms removed to form an obelisk, but that “the parties are free to explore alternative arrangements that would not offend the Constitution.”
Harrison said while she does not know what the M-NCPPC is planning to do with the cross, she hopes it will “do everything to make sure this monument is not destroyed.”
According to a statement by the M-NCPPC, “Our legal team is reviewing the court’s decision carefully and keeping the agency’s options open. For now, the disposition of the case is still pending, and the commission has no immediate plan to make any changes relating to the memorial.”
Bladensburg officials plan to establish a formal position on the matter during their town meeting on Nov. 13.
Grant said she is heartened Gov. Larry Hogan has expressed his support for the Peace Cross.
In a social media post on Oct. 21, Hogan wrote, “I’m a native Prince Georgian and have passed by this memorial thousands of times. I view it as an incredible tribute to those who came before us and made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
“The idea that memorializing our soldiers killed in battle on foreign lands to make the world safe for democracy is somehow unconstitutional goes against everything we stand for as Americans. Our administration will fight this unacceptable overreach. Enough is enough.”
Hogan also wrote a letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh requesting he write an amicus brief if favor of the state’s maintenance of the cross if the case is appealed. If this case is appealed, it could go before the Supreme Court.