Under questioning by the justices, the Supreme Court heard Wednesday that there was a legitimate, historical context to the monument, and that the cross shape was commonly used at the time to honor those killed in wars.
A lawyer representing the park commission pointed out that the court had previously ruled that in certain cases religious symbols may be appropriate to for public display, depending on context.
Members of the court appeared to acknowledge that attitudes have changed since the Bladensburg Peace Cross was first erected.
“History counts,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, who suggested that while a similar monument would not be appropriate in the modern context, that did not mean that all past monuments should be taken down.
Justice Elena Kagan agreed that for many people, a cross is a “very natural way” for people to mourn those who have died, and that it carries a different meaning in the context of World War I.
There are numerous other cross-shaped monuments on public land, including at Arlington National Cemetery.
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The American Humanist Association and a small number of Prince George’s County residents filed suit against the park and planning commission and the American Legion in 2014, and argued that a cross-shaped monument on public land was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The two cases were consolidated into one when the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the case.
The lawsuit was originally brought in 2014 and rejected by the District Court, which held that it was “uncontroverted” that the maintenance and display of the memorial was not “driven by a religious purpose whatsoever.”