West Virginia leads states challenging ruling against cross

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia Attorney General's office says it is leading a group of 30 states in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a case that found a cross honoring World War I veterans violates the U.S. Constitution.

According to a news release, the coalition filed a brief on Monday seeking to protect veteran memorials that include religious symbolism. The brief asks the high court to overturn a lower court's ruling in the case of the nearly century-old memorial cross in Bladensburg, Maryland.

"We owe a great deal of gratitude to the brave men and women who sacrificed everything for our country,” said Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, gearing up for a run for Senate. “Honoring their sacrifice with memorials that include religious symbols does not violate the U.S. Constitution and is one of many freedoms these men and women fought to preserve.”

The 40-foot-tall cross was built by the American Legion and a group of mothers who wanted to honor their sons and others from Prince George's County, Maryland, who died in World War I.

A three-judge panel in 2017 found that the Peace Cross "excessively entangles the government in religion."

The mothers chose a cross to mirror the cross-shaped grave markers in the foreign cemeteries where their sons were buried, according to the American Legion, which helped build the memorial in Bladensburg.

In 1960, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission assumed ownership of the memorial to maintain safety near a busy highway intersection, the commission argued in court documents asking the court to reconsider its ruling. A large bronze tablet lists the names of 49 residents who died.

"The Commission's interests in the memorial at issue here are about traffic safety and stewardship of local history," the group's attorney wrote.

The American Humanist Association, an atheist group that advocates for the separation of church and state, challenged the constitutionality of the cross, saying it endorses Christianity while ignoring non-Christian veterans.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the cross doesn't violate the First Amendment. The three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit overturned that ruling in a 2-1 decision.

Judges Stephanie Thacker and James Wynn Jr. found that "the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones" and that the memorial "aggrandizes the Latin cross" to the extent that someone who sees it would conclude the government entity that owns it endorses Christianity.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote in a dissenting opinion that the First Amendment doesn't require the government to "purge from the public sphere any reference to religion."

The attorney general's office says the Supreme Court's decision could impact memorials nationwide.

“The 13,000 combat veterans of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of West Virginia fully supports the West Virginia Attorney General’s urge to protect the memorial cross honoring World War I veterans in Bladensburg, Maryland,” said Kevin Light, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in West Virginia. “This memorial is a vital, historical depiction to educate the public on the many sacrifices the brave men and women who sacrificed their life to protect the freedom and rights the American public have today for the past 100 years.”

Joining West Virginia in the brief were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.