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US Government Backs Giant Cross Memorial Critics Call Illegal

FILE - The Supreme Court building in Washington.
FILE - The Supreme Court building in Washington.

The U.S. government Thursday asked the Supreme Court to rule in favor of a giant cross that serves as a war memorial, which critics say is an unconstitutional state religious endorsement.

"The removal or destruction of a 93-year-old war memorial would be viewed by many as the action of a government that is not neutral but hostile on matters of religion and is bent on eliminating from all public places and symbols any trace of our country's religious heritage," the Justice Department said in documents sent to the nation's top court, which is to consider the case in 2019.

The 40-foot (12-meter) cross was erected in 1925 in Bladensburg, Md., near Washington, to honor the memory of 49 local soldiers killed in World War I. It is built on public land approximately six miles from the Supreme Court, and its maintenance is paid for with public funds.

For that reason, the Washington-based American Humanist Association (AHA) holds that the monument violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment forbidding the government from favoring any one religion.

The group lost an initial court case on the issue but an appeals court disagreed with the first ruling.

"The display aggrandizes the Latin cross in a manner that says to any reasonable observer that the [Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning] Commission either places Christianity above other faiths, views being American and Christian as one in the same, or both," the appeals court said in December 2016.

The American Legion, a U.S. veterans organization, then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Other monuments

Any ruling by the top court will have implications for numerous monuments across the country, including two other crosses situated inside the Arlington military cemetery on the edge of Washington.

For the administration of Donald Trump — many of whose members openly profess their Christianity — the country's founding fathers may have banned religious coercion but understood "the acknowledgement of religion in public life."

"Passive displays generally fall on the permissible side of that line, because they typically do not compel religious belief; coerce support for, or participation in, any particular religion or its exercise," the government said.

It argued that "the context, history and physical setting of the display underscore its secular message: commemoration and respect for the fallen."

No date has been set for the Supreme Court hearing of the case.