The Supreme Court’s Peace Cross: Here’s the Important Backstory

cross, AP, associated press

The 40-foot Maryland Peace Cross dedicated to World War I soldiers. | Kevin Wolf/Courtesy The Associated Press

What is striking about the Peace Cross case before the Supreme Court is what it reveals about our country’s religious transformation since the war memorial was erected in 1925.

In early 20th-century America, the prevailing view was that a Christian cross was the right and proper way to honor the war dead. From what we know about the men listed, it would appear that the 49 World War I soldiers commemorated by the monument in Bladensburg, Md., were Christians.

The monument was built with private funds, but by midcentury, the land was formerly transferred to the government to maintain.

Yes, the First Amendment and state constitutions prohibit government establishment of religion. But for much of our early history, the United States was a semi-established Protestant country.

Up through the 1950s, when the local government took over maintaining the Peace Cross, American culture was dominated by Christian — generally Protestant — symbols and expression, including in public schools.

Charles C. Haynes is founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C. 

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