Is the Bladensburg Peace Cross a religious symbol?
Representatives for the American Humanist Association say it is, and are asking local parks and planning officials to either remove the 40-foot-tall concrete sculpture or give the land to a non-public entity to maintain. Failure to do so, according to a spokesman for the 10,000 member secular group, would constitute a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, which calls for the separation of church and state.
"If this land wasn't owned by the government, then this wouldn't be an issue whatsoever," said Brian Magee, communications associate with the AHA.
Magee grew up in Greenbelt and remembers the cross as a prominent area landmark. But he said it is in no way a secular monument.
"It's clearly a Christian symbol, it's clearly exclusive, and it's on government property," said Magee. "The courts have consistently ruled that as unconstitutional."
The AHA, working with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, wrote to the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission two weeks ago complaining about the cross. The letter, written by William Burgess of the AHLC, said that his organization took action after investigating a complaint about the cross from a Prince George's County resident.
"It is unconstitutional for a sectarian religious symbol such as the Bladensburg Cross to be displayed on public land," wrote Burgess. "A cross is an inherently Christian symbol. The state cannot choose it to stand for all of the fallen."
The group gave planners two weeks to respond to its complaint and threatened to bring suit if action was not taken within two weeks.
Anita Pesses, spokesperson for the M-NCPPC, declined to comment in detail on the matter and said that her organization's legal team was reviewing the issue.
The cross, which sits in the circle near the intersection of Baltimore Avenue, Bladensburg Road and Annapolis Road, was initially built by a local American Legion club in 1922 to honor the 49 Prince George's County residents who died fighting in World War I.
According to Dane Weber, club manager at the Colmar Manor American Legion, the cross was maintained by a Hyattsville American Legion post until 1957 when the Prince George's County Circuit Court transferred it to the state of Maryland, which then handed it off to the M-NCPPC to administer.
Weber has lived just about all of his life in Colmar Manor, except for his service in Vietnam. He served as a door gunner on Army helicopters between 1967 and and 1969. During that time, Weber said he participated in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the war, including the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Saigon.
Twice a year, Weber's group attends memorial services at the Peace Cross. He doesn't understand why the AHA has singled out the Bladensburg memorial.
"Get a life. Do something. Why pick on the veterans? Probably the majority of them have never been in the service, or if they were they weren't on the front lines" said Weber. "Like the old saying goes, you don't find an atheist in a fox hole."
Magee disagrees, noting that there are many atheists, agnostics and secular humanists serving in the armed forces.
"We want to honor all of our veterans, not just the Christian ones," said Magee. "This should be a monument that includes them all, not excludes."
Weber himself said he doesn't subscribe to any single religion. Aside from weddings and funerals, he said he doesn't attend church regularly.
"All crosses are not necessarily about God," said Weber. "You find a lot of cemeteries, especially in Europe for World War II, and they put crosses on them, just to honor the people who died there."
The AHA disagrees. In its letter to the M-NCPPC, lawyers for the secular organization write that courts have consistently ruled against the display of crosses on public land.
Recent appeals court decisions support this claim. The Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, which features a 43-foot cross, was ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals in 2011. A year earlier, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals said that roadside memorial crosses honoring fallen highway patrol officers were also unconstitutional on similar grounds.
News of the complaint against the cross has sparked something of a burst of support for the memorial, including at least one Facebook group, Save Our Historical Peace Cross in Bladensburg, MD.