American Humanist Association, Steven Lowe, Fred Edwords, and Bishop McNeill, v. Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission
In 2014, the American Humanist Association brought suit against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, challenging the government’s ownership and maintenance of a 40 foot-tall Christian cross towering over a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland.
The United States District Court of Maryland upheld the constitutionality of the cross and the AHA appealed. Following oral arguments in December 2016, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the order of the district court and ruled the cross unconstitutional in October 2017. The court reasoned:
“One simply cannot ignore the fact that for thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity. Even in the memorial context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ.
. . .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.”
The government filed a motion for rehearing en banc, asking the entire Fourth Circuit to rehear and then reverse the ruling. In March 2018, the majority of active judges on the Fourth Circuit Court voted against the government’s motion and upheld the decision finding the cross unconstitutional. In his separate opinion on the decision to deny the government’s request for en banc review, Judge Wynn reiterated:
“Our holding that the State’s ongoing ownership and maintenance of the Bladensburg Cross violated the Establishment Clause recognizes that to hold otherwise would require this Court to accept the Commission’s conclusion that the Latin cross does not have the ‘principal or primary effect’ of advancing the Christian faith. To give the judiciary the power to prescribe and proscribe the meaning of an unadorned, traditionally religious symbol like the Latin cross would infringe on intensely personal and sacred questions of religious meaning and belief. . . .
To allow this Court to circumscribe the Bladensburg Cross’s meaning and power, as the Commission and its amici request, would empower this Court to diminish the Latin cross’s many years of accrued religious symbolism, and thereby amount to the state degradation of religion that the Framers feared and sought to proscribe.”
In June 2018, the government and the American Legion petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari. In late July and early August, 2018, AHA filed briefs in opposition in both pending petitions up for consideration. On November 2, granting and consolidating the governments’ and American Legion’s petitions, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear arguments from the American Humanist Association.
Monica Miller, senior counsel, delivered oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States on February 27, 2019.
The Supreme Court issued a decision on June 20, 2019.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Selected Case Documents:
District Court (Case No. 8:14-cv-00550-DKC):
Appeal (Case No. 15-2597):
Brief of Appellants (February 29, 2016)
Reply Brief of Appellants (April 18, 2016)
Fourth Circuit Oral Arguments (December 7, 2016)
Fourth Circuit Decision (October 18, 2017)
Appellant Response to Petition for Rehearing En Banc (November 20, 2017)
Fourth Circuit Order Denying Request for Rehearing En Banc (March 1, 2018)
American Legion Supreme Court Petition for Certiorari (Case No. 17-1717):
Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission Supreme Court Petition for Certiorari (Case No. 18-18):
Supreme Court Arguments:
Selected Media Coverage:
The Washington Post (March 2, 2018)
Federal Court Upholds Ruling that Cross-Shaped Monument on Public Land in Md. is Unconstitutional
The Economist (March 6, 2018)
Does a Memorial to Fallen Soldiers Breach the Church-State Wall?
The New York Times (October 29, 2017)
A 40-Foot Cross Has Honored War Dead for 90 Years. Is It Unlawful?
Fox News (March 4, 2014)
Humanist Group Sues to Remove Cross-Shaped WWI Memorial in Maryland
February 27, 2019
Humanists Conclude Oral Arguments at the Supreme Court
January 23, 2019
Humanists Fight to Honor All Veterans in Final Supreme Court Filing
November 2, 2018
AHLC Will Defend Church State Separation at the Supreme Court
November 20, 2017
Bladensburg Cross Case: Frequently Asked Questions
November 20, 2017
Bladensburg Cross Appeal Case Begins
October 18, 2017
Appellate Court Rules Maryland Cross Unconstitutional
February 29, 2016
Bladensburg Cross Endorses Religion, Says AHA in Appeal
December 28, 2015
AHA Appeals Lawsuit against Bladensburg Cross Monument
February 25, 2014
Lawsuit Demands Removal of 40-Foot Christian Cross from Government Property
September 5, 2012
Bladensburg Peace Cross Should Come Down, Atheist Group Argues