FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2019 file photo, visitors walk around the 40-foot Maryland Peace Cross dedicated to World War I soldiers in Bladensburg, Md. The Supreme Court says the World War I memorial in the shape of a 40-foot-tall cross can continue to stand on public land in Maryland. The high court on Thursday rejected a challenge to the nearly 100-year-old memorial. The justices ruled that its presence on public land doesn’t violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause. That clause prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others.
Photo: AP Photo/Kevin Wolf
Photo: AP Photo/Kevin Wolf

Supreme Court’s ‘Peace Cross’ ruling helps preserve 2 Georgia monuments

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that lets a 40-foot cross erected on a war memorial on public land in Maryland continue to stand also boosts supporters of two smaller monuments in Georgia. 

Attorney General Chris Carr said the court’s 7-2 decision will help preserve a 12-foot cross in Fort Oglethorpe dedicated to a Civil War messenger killed in battle and a stone cross honoring World War I veterans along a busy street in Augusta.

“We strongly believe that memorials like this one do not violate the Constitution and should be protected and preserved,” said Carr. “Today’s ruling is a great win and provides helpful guidance as we continue working to protect these kinds of memorials all across the nation, including ones in Georgia.”

Carr joined a bipartisan group of leaders in 30 states last year to support the “Peace Cross” memorial in Maryland, which was erected in 1925 to honor 49 World War I veterans from Prince George’s County. It now sits on a highway median that’s been owned by the state since 1961.

The granite-and-cement memorial was challenged by the American Humanist Association, a nonprofit atheist group, as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The case sparked a broader debate over how the government should handle public displays of religious symbols. 

Carr’s coalition urged the High Court to overturn a lower court’s opinion that found the display “aggrandizes the Latin cross” in a way that appears to put Christianity above other faiths. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling found that the cross does not solely serve a religious purpose, even if it used Christian imagery. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, wrote that many see it a community gathering spot, a symbolic resting place or a historic landmark. 

“For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”

He was joined by six other justices: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.

The two dissenting justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor – sided with the appeals court’s view that the monument infringes on the separation of church and state. 

“Soldiers of all faiths ‘are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross,’” Ginsburg wrote in a dissent. “By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.