American Legion v. American Humanist Association

Court: U.S. Supreme Court
Case Number: 139 S.Ct. 2067
Decision Date: June 20, 2019
Case Type: First Amendment - Religion
The United States Supreme Court held that a 32-foot tall Latin cross located in a public park did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In 1925, shortly after the end of World War I, the cross was built using private funds on private land in Bladensburg, Maryland, to honor local servicemen who had died during World War I. Over the years the area of the cross was utilized for a number of events, including patriotic events but, because of its location in the middle of a traffic island, the cross and other memorials on the traffic island were donated to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1961. Thus, the cross became public property. By 2012, local residents noticed that taxpayer money was paying for the care of the giant cross and a lawsuit was filed arguing that it violated the principle of separation of church and state. The trial court held that the cross held a secular purpose, but the federal appeals court held that the cross was considered a religious icon for centuries and thus violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. 
 
The Supreme Court reversed the federal appeals court and held that although the cross was undoubtedly a Christian symbol, this particular cross was secular in practice. The Court saw that many monuments were established long ago and that “identifying their original purpose or purposes may be especially difficult.” They also noted that as time passes, the “purposes associated with an established monument…often multiply.” Discussing further, the Court noted that just as the purpose of the monument could evolve over time, the “message conveyed…may change over time.” At this point, the Court noted that even “religiously expressive monuments…can become embedded features of a community’s landscape and identity.” The Court even noted that “many cities and towns across the United States …bear religious names.” Finally, the Court noted that “when time’s passage imbues a religiously expressive monument…with this kind of familiarity and historical significance, removing it may no longer appear neutral.”