When Government Land Has a Cross to Bear

Harris Beach PLLC
In 2018, is a cross on government property an endorsement of Christianity, and a violation of the First Amendment? Or is it secular in nature if part of a war memorial? This question may find an answer in the Supreme Court's ruling on Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association.
It is common during the holiday season for municipal property to be decorated with various objects, and for municipalities occasionally to be sued (or face the threat of suit) either for those decorations or for denying a religious group's request to place decorations. However, it is possible that in the new year, the Supreme Court may (re)define the legal standard through this case.
The cross/memorial in question, in Maryland, was originally intended to honor those killed in World War I. The land was first maintained by a local American Legion; but the state took title to the land in 1961, and the area was expanded to honor others killed in more recent wars and events, including September 11, 2001.
While the lower courts determined the memorial was not an endorsement of religion, the U.S. Court of Appeals, on appeal, found that the cross/memorial "has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion," in part due to the history of the Latin cross and in part due to the size of the cross/memorial relative to the size of other memorials within the park.
Will the justices have a hard time examining these claims? Will a new legal standard be created? This case may be the first of many that make 2019 an interesting year for MuniBlog readers.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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