Supreme Court Upholds Cross Memorial, Suggests Many Other Displays Are Constitutional

Washington, D.C.—The U.S. Supreme Court today held that a World War I-era cross in Maryland did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The 7-2 decision deals a major blow to efforts by atheist and secularist groups that have sought in recent decades to have a host of nationwide symbols and observances declared unconstitutional.

The cross at the center of today’s decision, known as the Bladensburg cross, had been challenged by the American Humanist Association (AHA). Pacific JusticeInstitute (PJI) joined an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case. PJI has previously litigated against the AHA over memorials incorporating crosses.

Justice Alito’s majority decision drew from a wide range of recent and historical examples to hold that not only the Bladensburg cross, but many other phrases, symbols, and place names have become such a part of our lives that removing them would show hostility toward religion. Among many other examples, Justice Alito pointed to city names such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, along with numerous California examples—Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara and others. JusticeAlito also pointed to the recent fire and rebuilding efforts at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as a secular society regarding a religious icon as a national symbol.

Today’s decision sends a strong message that the current membership of the Court is not interested in declaring “unconstitutional” the monuments, mottos, symbols, and place names that have acquired diverse meanings, particularly over the passage of time. Some members of the Court, including Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, indicated they would be willing to go even further to push back against such lawsuits.

“This is a major victory for a proper interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” commented Brad Dacus, president of PJI. “The Constitution was never intended to compel government to sterilize symbols of faith and hope from public places of remembrance. Today’s decision also vindicates and incorporates some of the same examples we have been using for years to advocate for a return to common-sense interpretation of the First Amendment.”