BLADENSBURG – The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) hopes the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will reconsider its ruling on the Peace Cross.
On Nov. 1, the M-NCPPC filed a petition with the 4th Circuit for a rehearing en banc by the court. This means all of the 15 judges on the court would hear the case, which was originally reviewed by three judges.
In a recent 2-1 ruling, judges on the court found the commission’s maintenance of the World War I memorial, which is a 40-foot Latin cross, “excessively entangles the government in religion.”
The cross has the words, “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” and “Devotion” etched along its base and bears a bronze plaque with the names of the 49 men from the county who died in the war, along with a quote from President Woodrow Wilson.
The cross, which is part of a larger war memorial park, was built by the American Legion. The M-NCPPC took ownership of the memorial and its land in 1961 due to safety concerns because it sits along a busy intersection. Since then, the M-NCPPC has spent $117,000 on the memorial’s maintenance.
“Maintaining this monument, as well as the other monuments in the memorial park surrounding it, is in keeping with the commission’s legislatively designated mission and role as stewards of our local history,” Planning Board Chairman Elizabeth Hewlett said. “In deciding whether to reconsider their previous decision, we hope that the court will revisit the fact that M-NCPPC assumed ownership of this World War I Memorial 60 years ago with the express secular purpose of maintaining safety of the site near a busy highway intersection and preserving a monument commemorating a highly significant chapter in our nation’s and our county’s history.”
The M-NCPPC is a bi-county agency that administers parks and planning duties in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
The appeal lists several reasons why the M-NCPPC’s maintenance of the cross does not violate the Constitution, including that the cross has only been used for commemorative events, the M-NCPPC owns it because of safety concerns, and the cross has stood for 90 years before anyone lodged a complaint against it.
“The fact that the families of many of the service members honored on the memorial were involved in its design and construction makes this case far more like ‘cemetery crosses’ and communicates that the shape of the memorial was the product of their private choice rather than government endorsement,” the appeal reads.
The American Legion has also submitted a separate petition for an en banc rehearing of the case.
The court only orders an en banc hearing when “en banc consideration is necessary to secure or maintain uniformity of the court’s decisions; or the proceeding involves a question of exceptional importance,” according to the Federal and Local Rules of Appellate Procedure.
Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association, said although she’s not surprised these organizations filed appeals, she hopes the court will not grant the en banc hearing.
“It seems like a waste of resources, almost, to continue this case, due to the well-settled nature of cross cases,” Miller said. “The 4th Circuit is joining a long body of other courts that have found crosses in similar cases unconstitutional, so the ideal situation is simply that the en banc review is denied.”
The American Humanist Association filed the original lawsuit against the M-NCCPC and The American Legion.
Miller cited cases in which the 3rd, 7th, 9th, 10th and 11th Circuit Courts have found government crosses – including war memorial crosses – unconstitutional.
She hopes that should the M-NCCPC or the American Legion appeal to the Supreme Court, their petitions for a hearing would be denied.
“We can finally have a place in Bladensburg where Christianity is not being endorsed over all other religions,” she said.