The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27 heard oral arguments in a case challenging government ownership and display of a large cross in Bladensburg, Md.
The case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, concerns a 40-foot-high cross originally erected in 1925 to honor Maryland residents who died during World War I. In 1985, the cross was rededicated to memorialize the veterans of all wars. Today it is jointly owned and maintained by two counties north of Washington, D.C.--Prince George's and Montgomery--and sits on a traffic island near the intersection of several highways. The American Humanist Association (AHA), a group for non-believers headquartered in Washington, D.C., is sponsoring the lawsuit against its display.
Although the cross is recognized as the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith, during oral arguments, cross defenders asserted that the Bladensburg structure can have a secular meaning. Neal K. Katyal, one of three attorneys who argued in favor of the cross, began by asserting that the Bladensburg Cross has no real religious content because plaques on it merely list names alongside words like "Valor" and "Honor."
Under questioning from Justice Elena Kagan, Katyal asserted that communities should be free to erect crosses as memorials today, as long as a secular purpose can be demonstrated. He continued to insist that a cross can have a secular meaning, a claim that drew skepticism from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The two other attorneys who argued on behalf of the cross, Michael A. Carvin and Jeffrey B. Wall, acting solicitor general, echoed Katyal's argument. When Kagan asserted that the cross is "the foremost symbol of the Christian faith," Wall conceded that it is but quickly added, "It has also taken on a secular meaning."
Monica Miller, the attorney arguing the case for the AHA, disputed those claims. It would be highly insensitive, she argued, to put crosses on every grave marker at Arlington National Cemetery, and it's equally wrong to use a giant cross to memorialize all veterans. Crosses, Miller pointed out, represent only Christians.
Miller encountered aggressive questioning from the court's conservative wing, with Justice...