American Legion, et al. v. American Humanist Ass’n, et al, No. 17-1717; Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Ass’n et al., No. 18-18.   June 20, 2019.


The Freighted Hand of History. The Supreme Court has concluded that the history and custom of incorporating cross symbols in war and other memorials, as well as the susceptibility of the cross to secular as well as religious meaning, indicates that the presence of the World War I memorial cross situated on a publicly owned and maintaining traffic island in Bladensburg, Maryland (the “Bladensburg Cross” or “Peace Cross”) does not offend the First Amendment Establishment Clause.

Not In With the New Nor Out With the Old. The majority of the Court declined to define its determination as a new test for Establishment Clause challenges and similarly declined to explicitly override the much criticized three prong test of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) while nonetheless refusing to apply Lemon to its analysis in this case.

Multiple Opinions Published. Justice Alito wrote for the seven judges joining in the opinion in whole or in part or in the judgment only. Justices Thomas, Breyer. Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh wrote separately.  Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, sharply criticized the majority, offering that the maintenance of a Christian cross on public land ought to be presumptively offensive to the Establishment Clause.

Background and Procedural History.  The case is a challenge to the presence of a cross-shaped World War I memorial on public land brought by humanists who have alleged they are offended by the sight of the cross, its presence on public lands, and the expenditure of public funds to support the memorial.  The humanists argued that this presence offends the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court majority has disagreed, declining to uphold the Fourth Circuit order directing the removal or remodeling of the memorial.

The case record discloses that the federal trial court in Maryland dismissed the case, finding that the monument satisfied the three prong test announced in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) . The court found a secular purposes of commemoration and current public safety in maintaining the cross on public land, and found that a reasonable observer would not form the impression that the cross impermissibly endorsed religion.  Moreover, the static presence of the cross did not excessively entangle the government, as no continued and repetitive government involvement in religion could be found.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals took a contrary view, perceiving that an ordinary observer would indeed see the cross, with its public ownership and maintenance, as an endorsement of Christianity.  The Fourth Circuit focused on the inherent religious meaning of the cross and refused to allow history to serve as a legal determinant, seeing history as expanding rather than diminishing the harm caused by the presence of the cross.  

A dissent in the Fourth Circuit felt the panel overlooked history and failed to recognize that the Lemon test concerned “comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state surveillance” of religion, which circumstances are absent in the placement and maintenance of a war memorial cross.

Following denial of rehearing en banc in the Fourth Circuit, petitions for certiorari were submitted and granted.

Meaning and Locus in Society.  Justice Alito noted that the Bladensburg Cross serves not just as a Christian symbol but also as an expression of the community’s grief and gratitude, and an affirmation of the values for which the remembered soldiers fought. Removal of the cross would not only work harm to the community but would evince a hostility toward religion which does not comport with the Establishment Clause.

Bladensburg Cross Held to Be in Accord with First Amendment Fundamentals.  The Religion Clauses contemplate the harmonious presence of all beliefs: the Peace Cross is consistent with that purpose.

The Christian cross’s centuries old religious origin is undeniable, but the cross symbol itself figures prominently in trademarks and medical symbols, and with particular presence in war and military memorials and decorations as a symbol of sacrifice.

Justice Alito observed that there was  community involvement in the inception of the Bladensburg Cross, that different faiths participated in  its dedication, that diverse soldiers are honored by the cross, and that the site has been used for multiple public events, particularly veterans’ events.

Lemon Sours. Exegesis of the Religion Clause’s prohibition on any “law respecting the Establishment of Religion” has been a long and difficult endeavor, most notably reflected in the oft-criticized test of Lemon v. Kurtzman,  403 U.S. 602 (1971). Courts and counsel decry the Lemon test, but no court has been so bold as to directly declare its dismissal. To Lemon has been added analysis of the question whether a “reasonable observer” would perceive a government action to endorse religion.

Lemon provides no sound rationale for analysis of cases like the present one for examining the public use of words or symbols with religious associations.  Justice Alito would set aside Lemon in favor of presuming constitutionality attaches to “longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices.”

Memories Fade While Uses Multiply. Discerning initial purposes may become more difficult with the passage of time. At the same time, the purposes for which such monuments are used may multiply and serve secular ends.  

Revisionist Erasure of History No Panacea.  To scrub away names and remove longstanding memorials would strike many as evincing hostility to religion, itself impermissible.

The Christian primacy of the cross symbol cannot preclude recognition of all other meanings.  The cross serves memory, community, and history: its removal after nearly a century would not be neutral and would not foster the values of respect and tolerance that under-gird the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses.

New Presumption of Constitutionality for Aged Items and Practices. The impossibility of fully discerning original purposes, the multiple meanings that evolve over time, the evolution of meanings over time, and the particular meanings to communities which will not see removal as neutral counsel in favor of presuming the constitutionality of longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices, Justice Alito wrote.

What Is Past Is Not Prologue. This new presumption, grounded in history and usage, does not pertain to the new erection or adoption of such practices, Judge Alito noted.  

The Cases Before the Court. The association of the cross with war memorials is a long standing practice, some of which the humanists find unobjectionable.  

Lemon’s ‘unifying’ theory has not proved to be as helpful as has conducting the examination of cases individually with a view toward history. This is particularly apt where current practice may reflect a long tradition of valuing religious tolerance, inclusivity, non-discrimination and the recognition of the role of religion in many lives.

The eradication of religious symbols may evince hostility toward religion notwithstanding that secular associations have added to the symbol’s patina.

In this light, the Bladensburg Cross does not offend the Establishment Clause.  The Bladensburg Cross had a special meaning at its inception in honoring World War I soldiers, then later great historic importance for the city, serving as a memorial to service and sacrifice.  Members of diverse races and faiths are included. Significantly, the symbols used have meaning for many of the individual honorees.

Justice Breyer wrote separately to reiterate his view that no “one size fits all” approach will suit Establishment Clause analyses.  

Justice Breyer would have the court consider cases in view of the principles of the Religion Clauses:  religious liberty, tolerance, avoidance of religious social conflict, and ensuring that church and state remain separate so that each may flourish.  Justice Breyer cautioned that he did not believe that the Court has now adopted any new test — one of ‘history and tradition — that would open the door to new religious memorials on public land.  In all its Establishment Clause analytic endeavors, Justice Breyer offered that the Court must always be at pains to understand the difference between a “real threat and a mere shadow.”

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately to celebrate what he perceived to be a full, implicit, retrenchment from Lemon.  Several strands of Establishment Clause jurisprudence have not focused on Lemon but on important issues such as history and tradition with respect to religious symbols in public spaces; legislative accommodation for religious activity and exemptions from general laws; government benefits to religions; proscription of coercion in public school prayer; and according parity to religious and secular speech in public forums.  Lemon has held no sway in these cases. If a government act is not coercive, is grounded in tradition or history, treats all with equanimity, or permissibly accommodates or exempts on the basis of religion, then the Establishment Clause is not offended

Justice Kavanaugh suggests that those who remain concerned may want to use local processes to redress perceived wrongs.  So doing would be consistent with the great traditions of the United States. The Supreme Court is not the sole guardian of individual rights;  other governmental entities may provide safeguards greater than those in the federal constitution.

Justice Kagan wrote separately to offer that while Lemon is inapt in this case, Lemon’s focus on purpose and effects is critically important in evaluating government action. Justice Kagan would shy away from adopting an historical focus in Establishment Clause cases generally, and approach each case individually. That said, Justice Kagan applauded the Court’s emphasis on First Amendment values of pluralism, neutrality, and inclusion.

Justice Thomas wrote separately to concur only in the Court’s result and not in its reasoning, noting his fundamental concern with the incorporation of the Establishment Clause against the states.  The “law” mentioned in the Establishment Clause is legislation, making the clause inapplicable even if incorporation were to apply. A religious display has none of the coercive elements that the religious clauses were concerned with.  Justice Thomas would overrule Lemon in toto.

Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to opine that the rejection of “offended observer” standing ought to be articulated clearly.  Rejection of a status that could not withstand traditional Article III analysis was inherent in the court’s determination, however, and  “offended observer” standing has already been rejected by the Court.

Justice Gorsuch has noted that “offended observer” notions fail to comport with the requisites for Article III standing:  concrete, particular, actual, non-conjectural injury in fact; causation and redressability. Justice Gorsuch perceives “offended observer” standing to be the child of Lemon, which the Court clearly recognizes as a “misadventure.”  Lemon ought to meet its demise without leaving behind a noisome legacy like “offended observer” standing. The Court’s present enunciation of the importance of looking to history and tradition is a far more apt approach than that of the cumbersome Lemon test.  

The notion that history or the passage of time permits a presumption of constitutionality is problematic.  Better to apply the reasoning articulated in public prayer cases that create an artificial rule — a presumption — the application of which will prove difficult to define.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, has offered a dissenting view, criticizing the majority for permitting the ongoing installation of the “immense” cross as in derogation of the principles of government neutrality among faiths as well as between religion and non-religion.  

The preeminent symbol of Christianity cannot be transformed into a secular symbol by incorporation in a war memorial.  The Bladensburg Cross elevates Christianity over other faiths and preferences religion over non-religion. 

The installation of a religious symbol on public land ought to be seen as presumptively endorsing religion, contrary to the majority view  

Such a presumption may be overcome by indicia of neutrality. Museums might be suitable for displaying religious symbols.

The threat that all cemeteries would need refashioning to remove crosses lacks substance, Justice Ginsburg observes, because the presence of these symbols on individual graves may be seen as the protected speech of those buried there.  Neither is it necessary to hide all religious symbols from view. Such symbols may be relocated to private land, or public land may be transferred to private parties.

American Legion v. American Humanists, June 20, 2019 Supreme Court Opinion

An enchanting analysis may be found here:

Subscript Law Infographic of American Legion v. American Humanists Ass’n

And such perspective as may be found could be located here:

 

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