American Humanist Association v. Maryland-National Capital Park
PUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 8:14-cv-00550-DKC. . [15-2597]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION;
EDWORDS; BISHOP MCNEILL,
Plaintiffs – Appellants,
MARYLAND-NATIONAL CAPITAL PARK AND PLANNING COMMISSION,
Defendant – Appellee,
THE AMERICAN LEGION; THE AMERICAN LEGION DEPARTMENT OF
MARYLAND; THE AMERICAN LEGION COLMAR MANOR POST 131,
Intervenors/Defendants – Appellees,
--------------------------------FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION; CENTER FOR INQUIRY,
Amici Supporting Appellant,
THE BECKETT FUND FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY; JOE MANCHIN; DOUG
COLLINS; VICKY HARTZLER; JODY HICE; EVAN JENKINS; JIM JORDAN;
MARK MEADOWS; ALEX MOONEY; STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA; STATE
OF ALABAMA; STATE OF ARIZONA; STATE OF ARKANSAS; STATE OF
FLORIDA; STATE OF GEORGIA; STATE OF HAWAII; STATE OF IDAHO;
STATE OF INDIANA; STATE OF KANSAS; STATE OF KENTUCKY; STATE
OF LOUISIANA; STATE OF MICHIGAN; STATE OF MONTANA; STATE OF
NEVADA; STATE OF NORTH DAKOTA; STATE OF OHIO; STATE OF
OKLAHOMA; STATE OF RHODE ISLAND; STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA;
STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA; STATE OF TEXAS; STATE OF UTAH; STATE
OF VIRGINIA; STATE OF WISCONSIN,
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Amici Supporting Appellee.
Appeal from the United States District Court of Maryland, at Greenbelt. Deborah K.
Chasanow, Senior District Judge. (8:14-cv-00550-DKC)
ARGUED: December 7, 2016
Decided: October 18, 2017
Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and WYNN and THACKER, Circuit Judges.
Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge Thacker wrote the opinion, which
Judge Wynn joined. Chief Judge Gregory wrote an opinion concurring in part and
dissenting in part.
ARGUED: Monica Lynn Miller, AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION,
Washington, D.C., for Appellants. Christopher John DiPompeo, JONES DAY,
Washington, D.C.; William Charles Dickerson, MARYLAND-NATIONAL CAPITAL
PARK AND PLANNING COMMISSION, Riverdale, Maryland, for Appellees. ON
BRIEF: David A. Niose, AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION, Washington,
D.C.; Daniel P. Doty, LAW OFFICE OF DANIEL P. DOTY, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland,
Adrian R. Gardner, Tracey A. Harvin, Elizabeth L. Adams,
MARYLAND-NATIONAL CAPITAL PARK AND PLANNING COMMISSION,
Riverdale, Maryland, for Appellee Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning
Commission; Noel J. Francisco, JONES DAY, Washington, D.C.; Roger L. Byron,
Kenneth A. Klukowski, FIRST LIBERTY, Plano, Texas, for Appellees The American
Legion, The American Legion Department of Maryland, and The American Legion
Colmar Manor Post 131.
Patrick C. Elliott, FREEDOM FROM RELIGION
FOUNDATION, Madison, Wisconsin, for Amici Freedom From Religion Foundation
and Center For Inquiry. Eric C. Rassbach, THE BECKET FUND FOR RELIGIOUS
LIBERTY, Washington, D.C.; Paul J. Zidlicky, SIDLEY AUSTIN LLP, Washington,
D.C., for Amicus The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Charles J. Cooper, David H.
Thompson, Howard C. Nielson, Jr., Haley N. Proctor, COOPER & KIRK, PLLC,
Washington, D.C., for Amici Senator Joe Manchin and Representatives Doug Collins,
Vicky Hartzler, Jody Hice, Evan Jenkins, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, and Alex Mooney.
Patrick Morrisey, Attorney General, Elbert Lin, Solicitor General, Julie Marie Blake,
Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF WEST
VIRGINIA, Charleston, West Virginia, for Amicus State of West Virginia; Steve
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Marshall, Attorney General of Alabama, Montgomery, Alabama, for Amicus State of
Alabama; Mark Brnovich, Attorney General of Arizona, Phoenix, Arizona, for Amicus
State of Arizona; Leslie Rutledge, Attorney General of Arkansas, Little Rock, Arkansas,
for Amicus State of Arkansas; Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General of Florida,
Tallahassee, Florida, for Amicus State of Florida; Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General
of Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia, for Amicus State of Georgia; Douglas S. Chin, Attorney
General of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, for Amicus State of Hawaii; Lawrence G. Wasden,
Attorney General of Idaho, Boise, Idaho, for Amicus State of Idaho; Curtis Hill, Attorney
General of Indiana, Indianapolis, Indiana, for Amicus State of Indiana; Derek Schmidt,
Attorney General of Kansas, Topeka, Kansas, for Amicus State of Kansas; Andy
Beshear, Attorney General of Kentucky, Frankfort, Kentucky, for Amicus State of
Kentucky; Jeff Landry, Attorney General of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for
Amicus State of Louisiana; Bill Schuette, Attorney General of Michigan, Lansing,
Michigan, for Amicus State of Michigan; Timothy C. Fox, Attorney General of Montana,
Helena, Montana, for Amicus State of Montana; Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General of
Nevada, Carson City, Nevada, for Amicus State of Nevada; Wayne Stenehjem, Attorney
General of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota, for Amicus State of North Dakota;
Michael DeWine, Attorney General of Ohio, Columbus, Ohio, for Amicus State of Ohio;
E. Scott Pruitt, Attorney General of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Amicus
State of Oklahoma; Peter F. Kilmartin, Attorney General of Rhode Island, Providence,
Rhode Island, for Amicus State of Rhode Island; Alan Wilson, Attorney General of South
Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, for Amicus State of South Carolina; Marty J.
Jackley, Attorney General of South Dakota, Pierre, South Dakota, for Amicus State of
South Dakota; Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, Austin, Texas, for Amicus State
of Texas; Sean D. Reyes, Attorney General of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, for Amicus
State of Utah; Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, for
Amicus Commonwealth of Virginia; Brad D. Schimel, Attorney General of Wisconsin,
Madison, Wisconsin, for Amicus State of Wisconsin.
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THACKER, Circuit Judge:
In this case we are called upon to decide whether the Establishment Clause is
violated when a local government displays and maintains on public property a 40-foot tall
Latin cross, established in memory of soldiers who died in World War I. The district
court determined that such government action does not run afoul of the Establishment
Clause because the cross has a secular purpose, it neither advances nor inhibits religion,
and it does not have the primary effect of endorsing religion.
We disagree. The monument here has the primary effect of endorsing religion and
excessively entangles the government in religion. The Latin cross is the core symbol of
Christianity. And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the
busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and maintained with
thousands of dollars in government funds. Therefore, we hold that the purported war
memorial breaches the “wall of separation between Church and State.” Everson v. Bd. of
Educ., 330 U.S. 1, 16 (1947) (internal quotation marks omitted).
reverse and remand.
In 1918, some Prince George’s County citizens started raising money to construct
a giant cross, in addition to a previously established plaque, to honor 49 World War I
soldiers from the county. The private organizers required each donor to sign a pledge
sheet recognizing the existence of one god. It stated:
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WE, THE CITIZENS OF MARYLAND, TRUSTING IN
GOD, THE SUPREME RULER OF THE UNIVERSE,
PLEDGE FAITH IN OUR BROTHERS WHO GAVE
THEIR ALL IN THE WORLD WAR TO MAKE THE
WORLD SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY. THEIR MORTAL
BODIES HAVE TURNED TO DUST, BUT THEIR SPIRIT
LIVES TO GUIDE US THROUGH LIFE IN THE WAY OF
GODLINESS, JUSTICE, AND LIBERTY.
WITH OUR MOTTO, “ONE GOD, ONE COUNTRY AND
ONE FLAG,” WE CONTRIBUTE TO THIS MEMORIAL
CROSS COMMEMORATING THE MEMORY OF THOSE
WHO HAVE NOT DIED IN VAIN.
J.A. 1168 (emphasis supplied). 1 Local media described the proposed monument as a
“mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the Bible.” 2 Id. at
1115. The private organizers held a groundbreaking ceremony on September 28, 1919, at
which time the city of Bladensburg owned the land.
In 1922, the private organizers ran out of money and could not finish the project.
So, the Snyder-Farmer Post of the American Legion (the “Post”) assumed responsibility.
At its initial fundraising drive, the Post had a Christian prayer-led invocation. Later that
same year, on Memorial Day, the Post held memorial services around the unfinished
monument, at which a Christian chaplain led prayer, and those in attendance sang the
Christian hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” J.A. 2096. The Post ultimately completed
Citations to the “J.A.” or “Supp. J.A.” refer to the Joint Appendix and
Supplemental Joint Appendix, respectively, filed by the parties in this appeal.
“Calvary” refers to the “proper name of the place where [Jesus] Christ was
crucified.” J.A. 289.
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the monument in 1925 and had Christian prayer services at the dedication ceremony,
during which only Christian chaplains took part. No other religions were represented.
Upon completion, the monument at issue stood four stories tall in the shape of a
Latin cross located in the median of a three-way highway intersection in Bladensburg,
Maryland (the “Cross”). Over the years, memorial services continued to occur on a
regular basis at the Cross, and those services often included prayer at invocations and
benedictions, and speaker-led prayers. Sunday worship services have at times been held
at the Cross. Nothing in the record indicates that any of these services represented any
faith other than Christianity.
On March 1, 1961, Appellee Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning
Commission (the “Commission”), a state entity, obtained title to the Cross and the land
on which it sits. According to the Commission, it acquired the Cross and land in part
because of safety concerns arising from the placement of the Cross in the middle of a
busy traffic median. Therefore, the Commission purports that it assumed responsibility
to “maintain, repair, and otherwise car[e] for” the Cross. J.A. 2529. The Commission
has since spent approximately $117,000 to maintain and repair the Cross, and in 2008, it
set aside an additional $100,000 for renovations.
Today, the 40-foot tall Cross is situated on a traffic island taking up one-third of
an acre at the busy intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg.
The American Legion’s symbol -- a small star inscribed with “U.S.” -- is affixed near the
top of the Cross, and an American flag flies in the vicinity of the Cross. The Cross sits
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on a rectangular base, with each side inscribed with one of four words: “valor,”
“endurance,” “courage,” and “devotion.”
J.A. 1963 (capitalization omitted).
Additionally, one side of the base contains a two-foot tall, nine-foot wide plaque listing
the names of the 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County whom the Cross memorializes,
followed by a quote by President Woodrow Wilson. 3 However, the plaque is located on
only one side of the base, which bushes have historically obscured. 4 Moreover, the
plaque is badly weathered, rendering it largely illegible to passing motorists.
The Cross is part of a memorial park honoring veterans in Bladensburg (the
“Veterans Memorial Park”).
A small sign titled “Star-Spangled Banner National
Historical Trail” is located on a walking path approximately 600 feet north of the Cross.
This small sign -- which, like the plaque at the base of the Cross, is not readily visible
from the highway -- serves as the only formal marker identifying the area as a memorial
park by stating, “This crossroads has become a place for communities to commemorate
their residents in service and in death.”
The other monuments in the
memorial park area include a War of 1812 memorial, a World War II memorial, a Korean
and Vietnam veterans memorial, and a September 11th memorial walkway.
surrounding monuments are each located at least 200 feet away from the Cross, with the
“The right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for the things we have
always carried nearest our hearts. To such a task we dedicate our lives.” J.A. 1891.
The bushes were removed in response to the filing of this action in an attempt to
accommodate Appellants’ requests. See Oral Argument at 26:50–27:00, Am. Humanist
Assoc. v. Maryland-Nat’l Capital Park & Planning Comm’n, No. 15-2597,
http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/oral-argument/listen-to-oral-arguments (Dec. 7, 2016).
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War of 1812 memorial located one-half mile away. No other monument in the area is
taller than ten feet, and there are no other religious symbols in the park.
Beyond the above description of the Cross and its placement in the park, various
photographs from the record depicting the Cross are attached to this opinion. See J.A. 34
(image of the Cross before this case was filed), 1098 (closer image of the Cross), 1891
(image of the weathered plaque at the base of the Cross); Supp. J.A. 2 (overhead image of
the Veterans Memorial Park).
Appellants Steven Lowe, Fred Edwords, and Bishop McNeill are non-Christian
residents of Prince George’s County who have faced multiple instances of unwelcome
contact with the Cross. Specifically, as residents they have each regularly encountered
the Cross while driving in the area, believe the display of the Cross amounts to
governmental affiliation with Christianity, are offended by the prominent government
display of the Cross, and wish to have no further contact with it. Per their complaint,
they believe “a more fitting symbol of [veterans’] sacrifice would be a symbol of the
Nation for which they fought and died, not a particular religion.” J.A. 25. Appellant
American Humanist Association (“AHA”) is a nonprofit organization that advocates to
uphold the founding principle of separation of church and state. AHA is suing on behalf
of its members. 5
Where appropriate, Appellants AHA, Lowe, Edwords, and McNeill are
collectively referred to as “Appellants.”
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As noted, Appellee Commission, a state entity, owns and maintains the Cross and
the traffic island on which it stands. Appellees-Intervenors are the American Legion, the
American Legion Department of Maryland, and the American Legion Colmar Manor
Post 131 (collectively, “the Legion”). 6 The Legion is a private organization focused on
“Americanism” and the armed forces. J.A. 1469.
Appellants sued the Commission under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the
Commission’s display and maintenance of the Cross violates the Establishment Clause.
Appellants seek a declaratory judgment that this conduct violates the Establishment
Clause and Appellants’ constitutional rights, an injunction enjoining the Commission
from displaying the Cross on public property, 7 nominal damages, and attorney’s fees and
Appellants and Appellees filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the
district court granted summary judgment to Appellees. In doing so, the district court
analyzed Appellants’ claim pursuant to Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). It held
the Commission owned the Cross and land for a legitimate secular reason, that is, to
Where appropriate, the Commission and Legion are collectively referred to as
Appellants later clarified their desired injunctive relief as removal or demolition
of the Cross, or removal of the arms from the Cross “to form a non-religious slab or
obelisk.” J.A. 131.
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maintain the highway median. The district court also identified a second secular purpose,
which is to commemorate the 49 World War I soldiers from Prince George’s County. 8
The district court next determined that the Cross neither advanced nor inhibited
religion because (1) the Cross has been primarily used for veterans’ events; (2) crosses
are generally regarded as commemorative symbols for World War I, at least overseas; (3)
secular war memorials surround the Cross; and (4) the Cross has secular attributes, such
as the Legion symbol on the face of the Cross. Finally, the district court concluded the
Commission’s display and maintenance of the Cross did not amount to excessive
entanglement with religion because the Cross was not a governmental endorsement of
religion. At bottom, the district court viewed the Commission’s maintenance of the
Cross as relating to traffic safety and veteran commemoration rather than religion.
Appellants timely appealed.
We review de novo a district court’s grant of summary judgment. See Elderberry
of Weber City, LLC v. Living Centers-Se., Inc., 794 F.3d 406, 411 (4th Cir. 2015). “In
doing so, we apply the same legal standards as the district court, and view all facts in the
light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London
v. Cohen, 785 F.3d 886, 889 (4th Cir. 2015) (alterations and internal quotation marks
Alternatively, the district court applied Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005),
and reached the same conclusion.
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Appellants contend that the Cross is a war memorial that favors Christians to the
exclusion of all other religions. In response, Appellees frame Appellants’ claim as
promoting a strict rule that crosses on government property are per se unconstitutional,
which they assert threatens memorials across the Nation.
As an initial matter, Appellees question whether Appellants have standing to bring
this claim. They argue that Appellants have not “forgone any legal rights,” such as “the
right to drive on the public highways running through [the] Veterans Memorial Park” “to
avoid contact with the memorial.” Appellees’ Br. 46 n.12. Appellees’ standing argument
An Establishment Clause claim is justiciable even when plaintiffs claim
noneconomic or intangible injury. See Suhre v. Haywood Cty., 131 F.3d 1083, 1086 (4th
Cir. 1997); see also Int’l Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, 857 F.3d 554, 582 (4th
Cir.), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 2080 (2017). Specifically, in religious display cases,
“unwelcome direct contact with a religious display that appears to be endorsed by the
state” is a sufficient injury to satisfy the standing inquiry. Suhre, 131 F.3d at 1086.
The non-AHA Appellants have standing because they allege specific unwelcome
direct contact with the Cross; that is, they have each regularly encountered the Cross as
residents while driving in the area, the Commission caused such injury by displaying the
Cross, and the relief sought -- enjoining the display of the Cross -- would redress their
injury. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992); see also ACLU v.
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Rabun Cty. Chamber of Commerce, Inc., 698 F.2d 1098, 1108 (11th Cir. 1983)
(determining one plaintiff had standing because a Latin cross was clearly visible from
“the porch of his summer cabin” and from the roadway he used to reach the cabin). The
AHA also has standing. An association has standing to sue on behalf of its members if
they would have standing to sue on their own, the association seeks to protect interests
germane to its purpose, and neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires its
individual members to participate in the lawsuit. See Hunt v. Wash. State Apple Advert.
Comm’n, 432 U.S. 333, 343 (1977); ACLU of Ohio Found., Inc. v. DeWeese, 633 F.3d
424, 429 (6th Cir. 2011). Here, the AHA has members in Prince George’s County who
have faced unwelcome contact with the Cross. These interests are germane to the AHA’s
purpose of maintaining the separation of church and state, and the claim and relief sought
do not require individual participation. Appellants thus have standing to sue, and so we
turn to the merits of this case.
The Establishment Clause provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion . . . .” U.S. Const. amend. I. This clause thus guarantees
religious liberty and equality to people of all faiths. See Cty. of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492
U.S. 573, 590 (1989), abrogated on other grounds, Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 S.
Ct. 1811 (2014).
We have generally analyzed Establishment Clause issues pursuant to Lemon v.
Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). See Buxton v. Kurtinitis, 862 F.3d 423, 432 (4th Cir.
2017); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005);
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Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355, 370 (4th Cir. 2003). Per Lemon, to comply with the
Establishment Clause, a challenged government display must (1) have a secular purpose;
(2) not have a “principal or primary effect” that advances, inhibits, or endorses religion;
and (3) not foster “an excessive entanglement between government and religion.”
Lambeth, 407 F.3d at 269–73 (internal quotation marks omitted); see Lemon, 403 U.S. at
612–13. “If a state action violates even one of these three prongs, that state action is
unconstitutional.” Koenick v. Felton, 190 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing N.C. Civil
Liberties Union Legal Found. v. Constangy, 947 F.2d 1145, 1147 (4th Cir. 1991)); see
also Buxton, 862 F.3d at 432.
However, Appellees dispute Lemon’s application here, arguing that, instead, the
Supreme Court’s holding in Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005), controls. In Van
Orden, the Court addressed whether a monument displaying the Ten Commandments on
government property violated the Establishment Clause. See 545 U.S. at 681. The
monument, located between the Texas Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court building,
also displayed an eagle grasping the American flag, two Stars of David, Greek letters
representing Christ, and an inscription indicating that a private organization donated the
monument. See id. at 681–82. The monument stood six-feet high and three-and-a-half
feet wide, and sat among “17 monuments and 21 historical markers commemorating the
people, ideals, and events that compose Texan identity,” id. at 681 (internal quotation
marks omitted), such as monuments of the Heroes of the Alamo, the Texas National
Guard, and the Texas Peace Officers, see id. at 681 n.1.
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A plurality of the Court first decided the Lemon test is “not useful” in the
“passive” monument context. Van Orden, 545 U.S. at 686. Rather, it examined the role
and historical meanings of God and the Ten Commandments in our Nation’s history. See
id. at 686–91. The plurality first noted President George Washington’s Thanksgiving
Day Proclamation of 1789, which “directly attributed to the Supreme Being the
foundations and successes of our young Nation,” as an example of the “unbroken history
of official acknowledgment by all three branches of government of the role of religion in
American life from at least 1789.” Id. at 686–87 (quoting Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S.
668, 674 (1984)). It also recognized “the role of God in our Nation’s heritage,” pointing
to other Ten Commandment displays in federal buildings, including the Supreme Court’s
own courtroom and the Library of Congress, which reinforced the secular connection
between our Nation and the Ten Commandments. See id. at 687–89. Though the Ten
Commandments have religious significance, the plurality noted that the Ten
Commandments were given to Moses, who “was a lawgiver as well as a religious leader.”
Id. at 690. Finally, the plurality viewed the placement of the monument on the Texas
State Capitol grounds as “far more passive” when compared to other display cases,
especially because the petitioner in Van Orden “walked by the monument for a number of
years” before suing. Id. at 691. Taking all of these considerations as a whole, the
plurality concluded that the display in Van Orden did not violate the Establishment
Justice Breyer’s concurrence, however, is controlling because it is the narrowest
ground upholding the majority. See Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977);
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A.T. Massey Coal Co. v. Massanari, 305 F.3d 226, 236 (4th Cir. 2002); see also Card v.
City of Everett, 520 F.3d 1009, 1017 n.10 (9th Cir. 2008) (noting Justice Breyer’s
concurrence controls); Staley v. Harris Co., 485 F.3d 305, 308 n.1 (5th Cir. 2007) (same);
Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ., 650 F.3d 30, 49 (2d Cir. 2011) (same); ACLU
v. Grayson Co., 591 F.3d 837, 847 (6th Cir. 2010) (applying Van Orden and relying
primarily on Justice Breyer’s concurrence). The concurrence explains that courts should
remain faithful to the “basic purposes” of the Establishment Clause by examining, for
example, the circumstances surrounding the monument’s placement, its physical setting,
and the length of time it remains unchallenged. Van Orden, 545 U.S. at 698, 700–03
(Breyer, J., concurring). In addition, however, Justice Breyer clarified that the Lemon
test continues to act as a “useful guidepost” in Establishment Clause cases involving
monuments with both secular and sectarian meanings. Id. at 700. The controlling Van
Orden decision thus did not overrule Lemon; to the contrary, Justice Breyer actually
recognized Lemon as a “more formal Establishment Clause test.” Id. at 703. And this
court has consistently applied Lemon in religious display cases. See, e.g., Lambeth, 507
F.3d at 268–69; Smith v. Cty. of Albemarle, 895 F.2d 953, 958 (4th Cir. 1990). Thus, we
see fit to apply Lemon in this case, with due consideration given to the Van Orden
For their part, Appellees assert Van Orden “dictates the outcome of this case,” and
there is no Establishment Clause violation because (1) the Commission’s involvement
relates to highway safety; (2) memorials surrounding the Cross commemorate veterans;
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and (3) the Cross has stood unchallenged for 90 years. Appellees’ Br. 21. But even
under Lemon, Appellees contend that they prevail, particularly because the Cross’s
“content, setting, and history make clear to a reasonable objective observer that its
primary effect is commemoration, not religious endorsement.” Id. at 22. Therefore,
Appellees argue that they prevail regardless of whether Van Orden or Lemon applies.
In support of their argument to the contrary, Appellants primarily rely on Lemon’s
second prong -- that is, the “effect of advancing religion.” Appellants highlight the Latin
cross’s inherent religious message, the history of religious activity involving the Cross,
the Cross’s size and prominence, and its limited secular features. Appellants alternatively
assert that the Cross is unconstitutional under Van Orden because the Latin cross lacks
any connection to our Nation’s history, and the Cross’s physical setting undermines the
As explained above, we analyze this case pursuant to the three-prong test in
Lemon with due consideration given to the factors outlined in Van Orden, mindful that a
violation of even one prong of Lemon results in a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Demonstrating a legitimate secular purpose is “a fairly low hurdle.” Brown v.
Gilmore, 258 F.3d 265, 276 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Moreover, government action having “dual legitimate purposes” -- one secular and one
sectarian -- “cannot run afoul of the first Lemon prong.” Id. at 277.
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The Commission has articulated legitimate secular purposes for displaying and
maintaining the Cross that satisfy the first prong of Lemon. See Lynch, 465 U.S. at 680–
81. The Commission obtained the Cross for a secular reason -- maintenance of safety
near a busy highway intersection. The Commission also preserves the memorial to honor
World War I soldiers. Government preservation of a significant war memorial is a
legitimate secular purpose. See Trunk v. City of San Diego, 629 F.3d 1099, 1108 (9th
Cir. 2011). Thus, the Commission has satisfied the first prong of Lemon.
The second prong of Lemon requires this court to ask “whether a particular
display, with religious content, would cause a reasonable observer to fairly understand it
in its particular setting as impermissibly advancing or endorsing religion.” Lambeth, 407
F.3d at 271. A “reasonable observer in the endorsement inquiry must be deemed aware
of the history and context of the community and forum in which the religious speech
takes place.” Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 119 (2001) (alterations
omitted) (quoting Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 779–
80 (1995) (O’Connor, J., concurring)). “Put differently, the effect prong asks whether,
irrespective of government’s actual purpose, the practice under review in fact conveys a
message of endorsement or disapproval of religion.” Mellen, 327 F.3d at 374 (alterations
and internal quotation marks omitted). This second prong therefore requires a detailed
factual analysis of the Cross, including its meaning, history, and secularizing elements,
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and, where relevant, we consider the appropriate factors under Van Orden. See Trunk,
629 F.3d at 1110.
Meaning of the Latin Cross
The Latin cross is the “preeminent symbol of Christianity.” Buono v. Norton, 371
F.3d 543, 545 (9th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Robinson v. City of
Edmond, 68 F.3d 1226, 1232 (10th Cir. 1995); Gonzales v. N. Twp. of Lake Cty., 4 F.3d
1412, 1418 (7th Cir. 1993); Murray v. City of Austin, 947 F.2d 147, 149 (5th Cir. 1991);
ACLU v. Rabun Cty. Chamber of Commerce, Inc., 698 F.2d 1098, 1110 (11th Cir. 1983).
Indeed, the Latin cross is “exclusively a Christian symbol, and not a symbol of any other
religion.” Trunk, 629 F.3d at 1111 (internal quotation marks omitted); see Buono, 371
F.3d at 545; Gonzales, 4 F.3d at 1418 (“[W]e are masters of the obvious, and we know
that the crucifix is a Christian symbol.”). Notwithstanding the Latin cross’s inherent
religious meaning, the district court concluded that it is also a symbol of World War I,
particularly overseas. Specifically, the district court concluded that the Cross at issue
here evokes the image of white crosses on foreign battle fields. For this proposition, it
cites the Legion’s expert witness report, which states that “the symbolism of the cross is
that of individual loss of life, not of the Resurrection [of Jesus Christ].” J.A. 1898.
While the Latin cross may generally serve as a symbol of death and
memorialization, it only holds value as a symbol of death and resurrection because of its
affiliation with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. See Carpenter v. City and Cty. of San
Francisco, 93 F.3d 627, 630 (9th Cir. 1996) (“The Latin cross is the preeminent symbol
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of many Christian religions and represents with relative clarity and simplicity the
Christian message of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a doctrine at the
heart of Christianity” (internal quotation marks omitted)); ACLU v. City of St. Charles,
794 F.2d 265, 273 (7th Cir. 1986) (“It is the principal symbol of the Christian religion,
recalling the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the redeeming benefits of his passion and
death” (internal quotation marks omitted)). One simply cannot ignore the fact that for
thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity. Even in the memorial
context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a
Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ. 9 Further, even if other countries may
identify the Latin cross as a commemorative symbol of World War I, that
acknowledgment does not dictate our analysis. Indeed, crosses used on World War I
battlefields were individual -- rather than universal -- memorials to the lives of Christian
And this Nation, unlike others, maintains a clearly defined wall between
The argument could be made that to hold that the Latin cross symbolizes
anything other than Christianity may be deemed offensive to Christians. The Latin cross
“reminds Christians of Christ’s sacrifice for His people,” and “it is unequivocally a
symbol of the Christian faith.” Weinbaum v. City of Las Cruces, 541 F.3d 1017, 1022
(10th Cir. 2008).
The poppy has actually been known as a universal symbol for commemorating
World War I. See Trunk, 629 F.3d at 1113; Eang L. Ngov, Selling Land and Religion, 61
U. Kan. L. Rev. 1, 28 (2012) (“The poppy, as depicted in the famous poem In Flanders
Fields, not the cross, became the universal symbol in the United States and abroad for the
foreign wars” (footnotes omitted)); The Cambridge Encyclopedia 877 (6th ed. 2006)
(“Red poppies, which grew wild in the fields of Flanders, are used in November as a
symbol of remembrance of those who died in the two World Wars”); see generally H.R.
Rep. No. 80-2071 (discussing the use of the poppy to memorialize World War I and
reporting favorably on commemorative stamps depicting the poppy); Ryan Valentin, Milk
Pg: 20 of 48
church and state that “must be kept high and impregnable.” Everson v. Bd. of Educ., 330
U.S. 1, 18 (1947). Thus, the manner in which other countries view the Latin cross is of
Further, a Latin cross differs from other religious monuments, such as the Ten
Commandments or the motto “In God We Trust.” Those symbols are well known as
being tied to our Nation’s history and government, and courts have thus upheld their
public display. See, e.g., Van Orden, 545 U.S. at 688 (noting the secular role of the Ten
Commandments in American history); Lambeth, 407 F.3d at 271–72 (acknowledging the
ties between American history and the motto “In God We Trust”). Appellees have not
sufficiently demonstrated that the Latin cross has a similar connection.
History of the Cross
Though the history of the Latin cross favors Appellants, the history of the
particular Cross before us does not clearly support one party over the other. On the one
hand, the initial donors to the memorial fund signed a pledge professing a belief in God,
and the Cross has been the scene of Christian activities, such as Sunday worship services
and group prayer at invocations and benedictions.
On the other hand, private
organizations raised money to erect the Cross, it has a scattered history of religious use,
and Other Intoxicating Choices: Official State Symbol Adoption, 41 N. Ky. L. Rev. 1, 5–
6 (2014); Jennifer Iles, In Remembrance: The Flanders Poppy, 13 Mortality 201 (2008)
(discussing the history of the poppy and its status as a symbol of remembrance).
Pg: 21 of 48
and it has primarily hosted veteran-focused ceremonies. Thus, when viewed through the
lens of not only Lemon, but also of Van Orden, the circumstances surrounding the
Cross’s placement admittedly point to a semisecular history. See Van Orden, 545 U.S. at
It is also true that the Cross has stood unchallenged for 90 years, which Appellees
argue reinforces its secular effect. See Van Orden, 545 U.S. at 702. But that argument is
too simplistic. In this case, it cannot be said that “the longer the violation, the less
violative it becomes.” Gonzales, 4 F.3d at 1422 (rejecting the argument that nearly 40
years without challenging a crucifix reinforced its secular effect). 11 Perhaps the longer a
violation persists, the greater the affront to those offended. The Cross’s history therefore
does not definitively aid either side in the analysis.
Of note, a person who dared bring a challenge to the Cross for much of those 90
years would have faced possible rebuke. For example, atheists were forbidden from
holding public office until the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 1960’s. In 1959, the
Governor of Maryland appointed Roy Torcaso as a Notary Public, but the Secretary of
State of Maryland refused to issue the commission because Torcaso, an atheist, would not
declare a belief in the existence of god. See Appellant’s Br. 4; Torcaso v. Watkins, 367
U.S. 488 (1961). The Maryland Constitution provides, “No religious test ought to be
required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this state other than a
declaration of belief in the existence of God.” The Supreme Court deemed the clause
unconstitutional declaring that Maryland had “set up a religious test which was
designed to and, if valid, does bar every person who refuses to declare a belief in God
from a public office of profit or trust in Maryland.” Torcaso, 367 U.S. at 489 (internal
quotation marks omitted). More than 50 years later, the constitution still contains the
offending provision. See Md. Const. Decl. of Rts. art. 37.
Pg: 22 of 48
Admittedly, the Cross contains a few secular elements. As support for their
position, Appellees point to the plaque at the base of the Cross that contains the names of
the 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County whose lives were lost in World War I; the
Legion symbol; the words “valor,” “endurance,” “courage,” and “devotion” inscribed on
its base; an American flag flying in its vicinity; and its location in the Veterans Memorial
Appellees maintain that the plaque and symbols diminish any government
endorsement of religion.
But the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones. The Cross is by far
the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection,
standing four stories tall, and overshadowing the other monuments, the tallest of which is
only ten feet tall and located approximately 200 feet from the Cross.
monuments composing the Veterans Memorial Park are anywhere from 200 feet away to
a half-mile away. The immense size and prominence of the Cross necessarily “evokes a
message of aggrandizement and universalization of religion, and not the message of
individual memorialization and remembrance that is presented by a field of gravestones.”
Trunk, 629 F.3d at 1116 n.18 (citation omitted).
Pg: 23 of 48
In addition, the Cross is not located in an area where one could easily park, walk
to the Cross, and examine the plaque. 12 Rather, the Cross is located in a high-traffic area,
and passers-by would likely be unable to read the plaque, particularly given its location
on only one side of the Cross, 13 and the fact that both the plaque and the American
Legion symbol are badly weathered, not to mention that the American Legion symbol is
small in comparison to the overall size of the Cross. We also cannot ignore the American
Legion’s affiliation with Christianity, as gleaned from its prayer manuals and the “Four
Pillars of the American Legion.” J.A. 1469. 14 And, when we consider the physical
setting of the Cross pursuant to Van Orden, Appellees’ arguments are equally unavailing.
See 545 U.S. at 702.
The Cross’s location on public property at a busy traffic
intersection, the small size and scattered locations of the surrounding monuments, plus
Although there may be parking available in the vicinity of the Cross, as well as a
walkway to the Cross, realistically, the general public may not easily or readily access the
Cross. In fact, Appellees admitted at oral argument that pedestrians attending ceremonies
held at the Cross accessed the site primarily with help from police officers guiding
pedestrians through the intersection and highway. See Oral Argument at 25:00–26:30,
Am. Humanist Assoc. v. Maryland-Nat’l Capital Park & Planning Comm’n, No. 15-2597,
http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/oral-argument/listen-to-oral-arguments (Dec. 7, 2016).
And, after all, the primary reason the Commission took over the maintenance of the Cross
was for safety reasons, given its location in the middle of a busy highway intersection.
The plaque’s location on one side of the Cross makes it visible, if at all, only to
those traveling on a small portion of the busy highway. See J.A. 1891 (photograph of the
weathered plaque); see also Appendix (attached).
For example, to the exclusion of other religions, each Legion chapter has a
chaplain, and the Legion has a Christian prayer manual that is used at meetings,
invocations, and benedictions. Further, pursuant to the “Four Pillars of the American
Legion,” the Legion opposes attacks on “patriotic” values. J.A. 1469. Such attacks
include prayer being “removed from schools,” “[r]eferences to God [being] challenged,”
and attacks on the “institution of marriage.” Id. at 1469–70.
Pg: 24 of 48
the fact that bushes have obscured the plaque for much of its history, see, e.g., J.A. 34
(photograph of the Cross before this case was filed), all point to a violative display. See
Am. Atheists, Inc. v. Davenport, 637 F.3d 1095, 1121 (10th Cir. 2010) (“The fact that the
[12-foot tall] cross includes biographical information about [a] fallen trooper does not
diminish the governmental message endorsing Christianity.
This is especially true
because a motorist driving by one of the memorial crosses at 55-plus miles per hour may
not notice, and certainly would not focus on, the biographical information.”).
Thus, we conclude that the historical meaning and physical setting of the Cross
overshadows its secular elements. Other courts presented with similar situations have
concluded likewise. See, e.g., Trunk, 629 F.3d at 1123 (concluding a 43-foot Latin cross,
though purporting to serve as a war memorial, overshadowed its secular aspects, which
included a plaque and 2,100 commemorative bricks); Gonzales, 4 F.3d at 1422–23
(determining that an 18-foot wooden crucifix advanced religion, despite containing a
plaque dedicating it to veterans, because the plaque was obscured); Smith, 895 F.2d at
958 (concluding a crèche 15 on government property violated the Establishment Clause in
part because a plaque stating its private sponsorship was “relatively small . . . in relation
to the whole” display, thus “mitigat[ing] [the plaque’s] value”).
According to the dissent, our analysis bases the unconstitutionality of the Cross
“predominantly on the size of the cross,” without fairly weighing its “appearance,
A crèche is “a visual representation of the scene in the manger in Bethlehem
shortly after the birth of Jesus, as described in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.” Cty.
of Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 580 (footnote omitted).
Pg: 25 of 48
context, and factual background.” Post at 42 (emphasis omitted). This is not accurate.
Although we are of the opinion that the size of a religious display does matter, we have
also carefully considered the other factors required by Lemon and Van Orden. See Part
IV.C.2.a (analyzing context and meaning); Part IV.C.2.b (factual background and
history); Part IV.C.2.c (appearance). We are confident that we have fully complied with
our “constitutional directive.” Post at 42.
Considering the factors above, we conclude that a reasonable observer would
fairly understand the Cross to have the primary effect of endorsing religion. We do not
disagree with the dissent’s characterization of the “reasonable observer” as someone who
is not just an “ordinary individual” but “aware of the history and context of the
community and forum in which the religious display appears.” Post at 43–44 (internal
quotation marks omitted); see Lambeth, 407 F.3d at 271–72 (quoting Good News Club,
533 U.S. at 119 (citation omitted)). In fact, Appellees at oral argument reaffirmed that
the reasonable observer is aware of the entire context and history of the Cross, spanning
from its origin to the present. See Oral Argument at 18:04–19:00, Am. Humanist Assoc.
http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/oral-argument/listen-to-oral-arguments (Dec. 7, 2016).
Accordingly, a reasonable observer would know that the Cross is dedicated to 49
World War I veterans and that veteran services occur at the Cross.
importantly, a reasonable observer would also know that the private organizers pledged
Pg: 26 of 48
devotion to faith in God, and that same observer knows that Christian-only religious
activities have taken place at the Cross. No party has come forward with any evidence to
the contrary. Although the reasonable observer may recognize that the Cross is located in
the Veterans Memorial Park, such reasonable observer also could not help but note that
the Cross is the most prominent monument in the Park and the only one displaying a
Further, the reasonable observer would know that a Latin cross
generally represents Christianity. These factors collectively weigh in favor of concluding
that the Cross endorses Christianity -- not only above all other faiths, but also to their
The Commission and supporting amici equate the Cross to the crosses in Arlington
National Cemetery and similar locations. They raise concerns that siding with Appellants
here would jeopardize other memorials across the Nation displaying crosses, laying waste
to such memorials nationwide. Any such concern is misplaced. Establishment Clause
cases are fact-specific, and our decision is confined to the unique facts at hand. See
McCreary Cty. v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844, 867–68 (2005) (recognizing the relevant inquiry
is based on the specific facts before the Court); Van Orden, 545 U.S. at 700
(acknowledging the “fact-intensive” nature of religious display cases); Card, 520 F.3d at
1014; Staley, 485 F.3d at 309; O’Connor v. Washburn Univ., 416 F.3d 1216, 1222 (10th
Pg: 27 of 48
In any event, Arlington National Cemetery is a designated area for
commemorating and memorializing veterans who have passed away. 16 The crosses there
are much smaller than the 40-foot tall monolith at issue here.
Arlington National Cemetery displays diverse religious symbols, both as monuments and
on individual headstones. 17 Contrast that with the Cross here. There are no other
religious symbols present on the Cross or in the entirety of the Veterans Memorial Park.
Christianity is singularly -- and overwhelmingly -- represented. Therefore, the second
prong of Lemon is violated.
We turn now to the third prong of the Lemon test -- whether the government
display creates “an excessive entanglement between government and religion.” Lambeth,
407 F.3d at 272–73 (internal quotation marks omitted). Excessive entanglement with
religion “is a question of kind and degree.” Lynch, 465 U.S. at 684. Such entanglement
may include “pervasive monitoring or other maintenance by public authorities.”
Lambeth, 407 F.3d at 273 (citations omitted). Spending public funds, though a factor in
the analysis, is not necessary for a plaintiff to satisfy the entanglement prong. See
It must be made clear that we are not deciding or passing judgment on the
constitutionality of Arlington National Cemetery’s display of Latin crosses. Rather, we
are merely distinguishing the facts at hand from those displayed at other places of
Images of such headstones are attached in the appendix.
Pg: 28 of 48
Constangy, 947 F.2d at 1152. Indeed, excessive entanglement may lie simply where the
government’s entanglement has the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion.
Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 232–33 (1997).
We hold there is excessive religious entanglement in this case for two reasons.
First, the Commission owns and maintains the Cross, which is displayed on government
property. The Commission has spent at least $117,000 to maintain the Cross and has set
aside an additional $100,000 for restoration. Other cases holding that displays violate the
Establishment Clause have involved de minimis government spending, if any.
Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 U.S. 589, 623 (1988) (O’Connor, J., concurring) (“[A]ny use of
public funds to promote religious doctrines violates the Establishment Clause.”
(emphasis omitted)). 18 Second, displaying the Cross, particularly given its size, history,
and context, amounts to excessive entanglement because the Commission is displaying
the hallmark symbol of Christianity in a manner that dominates its surroundings and not
only overwhelms all other monuments at the park, but also excludes all other religious
tenets. The display aggrandizes the Latin cross in a manner that says to any reasonable
observer that the Commission either places Christianity above other faiths, views being
American and Christian as one in the same, or both. Therefore, the third prong of Lemon
is also violated. We note, however, that because the Cross is unconstitutional under the
The dissent’s view to the contrary is only based on its differing views of the
Cross -- as a “historical monument” rather than promotion of a religious doctrine in the
form of a religious symbol. Post at 48. For the reasons explained supra, the Cross
embodies promotion of a religious doctrine, Christianity, and therefore, Justice
O’Connor’s statement is directly applicable.
Pg: 29 of 48
effect prong, the excessive entanglement prong here merely provides an alternative
indicator of the Cross’s unconstitutionality.
The Commission’s display of the Cross fails the second and third prongs of
Lemon, and the Van Orden factors are unsupportive of Appellees’ position in this case.
The display and maintenance of the Cross violates the Establishment Clause.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is
REVERSED AND REMANDED. 19
Upon remand, the parties should note that this opinion does not presuppose any
particular result (i.e., removing the arms or razing the Cross entirely); rather, the parties
are free to explore alternative arrangements that would not offend the Constitution.
Pg: 30 of 48
(J.A. 34) 20
A photograph of the Cross prior to the filing of this case.
Pg: 31 of 48
(J.A. 1098) 21
A photograph of the Cross from 2014 prior to the filing of this case.
Pg: 32 of 48
(J.A. 1891) 22
(Supp. J.A. 2) 23
A photograph of the weathered plaque located on the base of the Cross.
An overhead image of the Veterans Memorial Park. The Cross is located
slightly to the left of center, titled “WWI Memorial.”
Pg: 33 of 48
As referenced in footnote 17, images of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery
adorned with diverse religious symbols, identified from top left to bottom right: Soka
Gakkai, Christianity, Buddhism, Wicca, Islam, Catholicism, United Church of Christ,
Judaism, and Atheism. Arlington National Cemetery,
Pg: 34 of 48
GREGORY, Chief Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part:
I agree with the majority’s holding that Appellants have standing under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983 to bring this action for a violation of the Establishment Clause. But I disagree
with the majority’s ultimate conclusion that the display and maintenance of the war
memorial in this case violates the Establishment Clause. I therefore respectfully dissent
The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion.” U.S. Const. amend. I. To properly understand and apply
the Establishment Clause, it must be viewed “in the light of its history and the evils it was
designed forever to suppress.” Everson v. Bd. of Educ., 330 U.S. 1, 14–15 (1947). The
early colonization of America was a time marked with religious persecution.
Immigrating settlers fled religious suppression in Europe only to be met with similar
treatment in America. “[M]en and women of varied faiths who happened to be in a
minority in a particular locality were persecuted because they steadfastly persisted in
worshipping God only as their own consciences dictated.” Id. at 10. Those regarded as
nonconformists were required “to support government-sponsored churches whose
ministers preached inflammatory sermons designed to strengthen and consolidate the
established faith by generating a burning hatred against dissenters.” Id.
The Establishment Clause was intended to combat the practice of “compel[ling
individuals] to support and attend government favored churches.” Id. at 8; accord Myers
Pg: 35 of 48
v. Loudoun Cty. Pub. Sch., 418 F.3d 395, 402 (4th Cir. 2005). The Clause’s historical
setting reveals that “[i]ts first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a
union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962). The realization of its goal meant that the
government must “‘neither engage in nor compel religious practices,’ that it must ‘effect
no favoritism among sects or between religion and nonreligion,’ and that it must ‘work
deterrence of no religious belief.’” Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 698 (2005)
(Breyer, J., concurring) (plurality opinion) (quoting Abington School Dist. v. Schempp,
374 U.S. 203, 305 (1963) (Goldberg, J., concurring)).
But the Clause does not require the government “to purge from the public sphere”
any reference to religion. Id. at 699. “Such absolutism is not only inconsistent with our
national traditions, but would also tend to promote the kind of social conflict the
Establishment Clause seeks to avoid.” Id. (citations omitted). While neutrality may be
the “touchstone” of the Establishment Clause, it more so serves as a “sense of direction”
than a determinative test. McCreary Cty. v. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 454 U.S. 844
(2005). We cannot view neutrality as some sort of “brooding and pervasive devotion to
the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious.” Schempp, 374 U.S. at
306 (Goldberg, J., concurring). Thus, in reviewing the challenged war memorial, this
Court must seek general rather than absolute neutrality. We do so by engaging in the
three-factor analysis delineated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (the “Lemon test”), which requires
that the memorial have a secular purpose; have a principal or primary effect that neither
advances, inhibits, nor endorses religion; and not foster “an excessive government
Pg: 36 of 48
entanglement with religion.” 403 U.S. 602, 612–13 (1971). The memorial “must satisfy
each of the Lemon test’s three criteria” to pass constitutional muster. Lambeth v. Bd. of
Comm’rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 269 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Mellen v. Bunting,
327 F.3d 355, 367 (4th Cir. 2003)).
I will briefly reiterate the operative facts. In Bladensburg, Maryland, in a median
at the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1, stands a war memorial
consisting of a forty-foot-tall concrete Latin cross (the “Memorial”). The Memorial and
the median are currently owned by Appellee Maryland-National Capital Park and
Planning Commission (the “Commission”).
Intervenor-Appellee American Legion’s
symbol is displayed in the middle of the cross on both faces. The cross sits on a base and
includes a plaque that lists the names of the forty-nine Prince George’s County residents
who died in World War I. J.A. 1891. The plaque also states, “THIS MEMORIAL
CROSS DEDICATED TO THE HEROES OF PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY
MARYLAND WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR FOR THE LIBERTY
OF THE WORLD,” and includes a quotation from President Woodrow Wilson. Id.
Also, each face of the base is inscribed with one of four words:
“ENDURANCE,” “COURAGE,” and “DEVOTION.” J.A. 1963.
In 1918, a group of private citizens led the charge to construct and finance the
Memorial. The donors signed a pledge stating that they, “trusting in God, the Supreme
Pg: 37 of 48
Ruler of the universe,” pledged their faith in the forty-nine war dead, whose spirits
guided them “through life in the way of godliness, justice, and liberty.” J.A. 1168. The
group also circulated a fundraising flyer stating,
Here, those who come to the Nation’s Capital to view the wonders of its
architecture and the sacred places where their laws are made and
administered may, before this Cross, rededicate themselves to the
principles of their fathers and renew the fires of patriotism and loyalty to
the nation which prompted these young men to rally to the defense of the
right. And here the friends and loved ones of those who were in the great
conflict will pass daily over a highway memorializing their boys who made
the supreme sacrifice.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Memorial and for Maryland Route
450 (then known as the National Defense Highway) in late 1919. Several local officials
spoke about the fallen soldiers and how both the Memorial and highway would
commemorate their bravery and sacrifice. But the private group ultimately failed to raise
enough money to construct the Memorial and abandoned the project. The local post of
the American Legion, a congressionally chartered veterans service organization, then
took up the task and completed the Memorial on July 25, 1925. That day, the post held a
ceremony which included multiple speeches regarding the Memorial’s representation of
the men who died fighting for this country and an invocation and benediction delivered
by local clergymen.
Over time, additional monuments honoring veterans were built near the Memorial
(known as the “Veterans Memorial Park”). Because the Memorial sits in the middle of a
median and is separated by a busy highway intersection, the closest additional monument
Pg: 38 of 48
is about 200 feet away. Since the Memorial’s completion, numerous events have been
hosted there to celebrate Memorial Day, Veterans Day, the Fourth of July, and the
remembrance of September 11th. These ceremonies usually include an invocation and
benediction, but the record demonstrates that only three Sunday religious services were
held at the Memorial—all of which occurred in August 1931. J.A. 347.
Due to increasing traffic on the highway surrounding it, the Commission acquired
the Memorial and the median where it is located from the American Legion in March
1961. Since that time, the Commission has spent approximately $117,000 to maintain
and repair the Memorial. In 2008, it set aside an additional $100,000 for renovations, of
which only $5,000 has been spent as of 2015. J.A. 562–65. On February 25, 2014, more
than fifty years after the Memorial passed into state ownership, Appellants initiated this
suit against the Commission under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging a violation of the
By concluding that the Memorial violates the Establishment Clause, the majority
employed the Lemon test “with due consideration given to the factors outlined in Van
Orden.” Maj. Op. at 16. In Van Orden, a plurality of the Supreme Court determined that
the Lemon test was not useful when evaluating a “passive monument.” 545 U.S. at 686.
Instead, the Court’s analysis was “driven both by the nature of the monument and by our
Nation’s history.” Id. As the majority recognizes, Justice Breyer’s concurrence is the
controlling opinion in Van Orden. Maj. Op. at 14. Justice Breyer states that the Court’s
Establishment Clause tests, such as Lemon, cannot readily explain the Clause’s tolerance
Pg: 39 of 48
of religious activities in “borderline cases,” as there is “no single mechanical formula that
can accurately draw the constitutional line in every case.” Van Orden, 454 U.S. at 699–
700 (Breyer, J., concurring). “If the relation between government and religion is one of
separation, but not of mutual hostility and suspicion, one will inevitably find difficult
Id. at 700.
Instead of applying Lemon to the challenged Ten
Commandments display, Justice Breyer exercised his “legal judgment” and evaluated the
context of the display and how the undeniably religious text of the Commandments was
used. Id. at 700–04. His concurrence, however, also noted that Lemon provides a “useful
guidepost—and might well lead to the same result”—for “no exact formula can dictate
a resolution to such fact-intensive cases.” Id. at 700.
Relying on Lemon, and drawing guidance from Van Orden, the majority
determined that the Commission articulated a legitimate secular purpose for displaying
the Memorial. Nevertheless, the majority concluded that the Memorial failed Lemon’s
second and third factors, finding that a reasonable observer would conclude that the
Memorial has the primary effect of endorsing religion and the Commission’s
maintenance of the Memorial constitutes excessive entanglement with religion. In my
view, the majority misapplies Lemon and Van Orden to the extent that it subordinates the
Memorial’s secular history and elements while focusing on the obvious religious nature
of Latin crosses themselves; constructs a reasonable observer who ignores certain
elements of the Memorial and reaches unreasonable conclusions; and confuses
maintenance of a highway median and monument in a state park with excessive religious
Pg: 40 of 48
Because Appellants do not challenge the district court’s finding that the
Commission has demonstrated a secular purpose for displaying and maintaining the
Memorial (the first Lemon factor), I will discuss in turn the majority’s evaluation of the
second and third Lemon factors—whether the Memorial has the primary effect of
advancing or inhibiting religion and whether the government is excessively entangled
Under Lemon’s second factor, we must determine “whether a particular display,
with religious content, would cause a reasonable observer to fairly understand it in its
particular setting as impermissibly advancing or endorsing religion.” Lambeth, 407 F.3d
at 271. This reasonable observer inquiry “requires the hypothetical construct of an
objective observer who knows all of the pertinent facts and circumstances surrounding
the [display] and its placement.” Salazar v. Buono, 559 U.S. 700, 721 (2010) (plurality
We should not ask “whether there is any person who could find an
endorsement of religion, whether some people may be offended by the display, or
whether some reasonable person might think the State endorses religion.” Capitol Square
Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 780 (1995) (O’Connor, J., concurring)
(internal quotation marks omitted).
Instead, we must determine “whether . . . the
display’s principal or primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion; or, put differently,
whether an informed, reasonable observer would view the display as an endorsement of
religion.” Lambeth, 407 F.3d at 272.
Pg: 41 of 48
It is undeniable that the Latin cross is the “preeminent symbol of Christianity.”
Maj. Op. at 18. But we must be careful not to “focus exclusively on the religious
component” of a display, as that “would inevitably lead to its invalidation under the
Establishment Clause.” Lambeth, 407 F.3d at 271 (quoting Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S.
668, 680 (1984)). Indeed, the Supreme Court “has consistently concluded that displays
with religious content—but also with a legitimate secular use—may be permissible under
the Establishment Clause.” Id. (citing Cty. of Allegheny v. Am. Civil Liberties Union,
492 U.S. 573, 579 (1989)). A reasonable observer would be aware that the cross is “not
merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” for it is “often used to honor and respect
those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored
place in history for this Nation and its people.” Buono, 559 U.S. at 721.
Despite the religious nature of the Latin cross, a reasonable observer must also
adequately consider the Memorial’s physical setting, history, and usage. The Memorial
was created to commemorate the forty-nine soldiers who lost their lives in World War I,
as explicitly stated on the plaque attached to its base.
See J.A. 1891 (“THIS
MEMORIAL CROSS DEDICATED TO THE HEROES OF PRINCE GEORGE’S
COUNTY MARYLAND WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR FOR THE
LIBERTY OF THE WORLD.”). The plaque also includes a quotation from President
Woodrow Wilson stating, “The right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for the
things we have always carried nearest our hearts. To such a task we dedicate our lives.”
Id. Each face of the cross includes the American Legion seal and each face of the base is
inscribed with one of four words: “VALOR,” “ENDURANCE,” “COURAGE,” and
Pg: 42 of 48
“DEVOTION.” J.A. 1963. The Memorial has functioned as a war memorial for its
entire history, and it sits among other secular monuments in Veterans Memorial Park,
though it is separated from the other monuments by intersecting highways.
The majority concludes that the size of the Latin cross making up the Memorial
overwhelms these secular elements.
In the majority’s view, the Memorial is
unconstitutional based predominantly on the size of the cross, and neither its secular
features nor history could overcome the presumption. But such a conclusion is contrary
to our constitutional directive. We must fairly weigh the appearance, context, and factual
background of the challenged display when deciding the constitutional question. See
Lynch, 465 U.S. at 679–80; Cty. of Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 598–600.
reasonable observer would properly notice the Memorial’s large size, she would also take
into account the plaque, the American Legion symbol, the four-word inscription, its
ninety-year history as a war memorial, and its presence within a vast state park dedicated
to veterans of other wars. Would the majority’s version of a reasonable observer be
satisfied and better equipped to evaluate the Memorial’s history and context if the cross
were smaller? Perhaps if it were the same size as the other monuments in the park?
Though Establishment Clause cases require a fact-intensive analysis, we must bear in
mind our responsibility to provide the government and public with notice of actions that
violate the Constitution. What guiding principle can be gleaned from the majority’s
focus on the cross’s size? Understandably, the majority’s decision would lead to per se
findings that all large crosses are unconstitutional despite any amount of secular history
and context, in contravention of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.
Pg: 43 of 48
The majority also makes much of the Memorial’s isolation from the other
monuments in Veterans Memorial Park, as it sits in the median of a now busy highway,
making it difficult to access. But a reasonable observer would note that the Memorial
was placed there as part of the concurrent creation of the National Defense Highway to
commemorate the soldiers of World War I, not as a means of endorsing religion. And,
though Veterans Memorial Park does not include any other religious symbols as
memorials, there is no evidence that the state formally foreclosed the possibility of
erecting any other religious symbol. Also, the reasonable observer would note that the
Memorial’s physical setting does not lend itself to any religious worship. Van Orden,
545 U.S. at 702 (stating that religious display’s location in large park containing other
monuments suggested “little or nothing sacred,” as it illustrated residents’ historical
ideals and “did not readily lend itself to meditation or any other religious activity”).
Additionally, due to the Memorial’s location, the majority explains that a
reasonable observer would not be able to easily examine the Memorial’s secular
elements. Maj. Op. at 23. This is because the Memorial “is located in a high-traffic area
and passers-by would likely be unable to read the plaque,” which is small and badly
weathered. Id. at 23. However, the reasonable observer’s knowledge is not “limited to
the information gleaned simply from viewing the challenged display.” Pinette, 515 U.S.
at 780–81 (O’Connor, J., concurring). That the average person in the community may
have difficulty viewing all of the secular elements of the Memorial while stuck in traffic
or driving at high speeds is of no consequence, for the reasonable observer “is not to be
identified with any ordinary individual, . . . but is rather a personification of a community
Pg: 44 of 48
ideal of reasonable behavior” who is “deemed aware of the history and context of the
community and forum in which the religious display appears.” Id. at 779–80 (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted).
Thus, the reasonable observer’s ability to
consider these secular elements is by no means diminished.
Further, quoting Trunk v. City of San Diego, 629 F.3d 1099, 1116 n.18 (9th Cir.
2011), the majority states that the large size and isolation of the Memorial “evokes a
message of aggrandizement and universalization of religion, and not the message of
individual memorialization and remembrance that is presented by a field of gravestones.”
Maj. Op. at 22. In Trunk, the Ninth Circuit considered a forty-three-foot free-standing
cross and veterans memorial erected in a state park. 629 F.3d at 1101. The court
evaluated the history of the Latin cross generally, its use as a war memorial, the history of
the particular war memorial at issue, and its physical setting. Id. at 1102–05, 1110–24.
The cross in Trunk had no secular elements; instead, it was unadorned and without any
physical indication that it was a war memorial until after litigation was initiated to
remove it. Id. at 1101–02; see also Smith v. Cty. of Albemarle, 895 F.2d 953, 958 (4th
Cir. 1990) (concluding that crèche, unassociated with any secular symbols, prominently
displayed in front of government building, and unaccompanied by any other religious or
nonreligious displays, conveyed message of governmental endorsement of religion). The
court concluded that a reasonable observer would perceive the presence of the cross as
the federal government’s endorsement of Christianity, due in part to its long history of
serving as a site of religious observance, with no indication of any secular purpose for
almost three decades. Id. at 1125.
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But here, the Memorial has always served as a war memorial, has been adorned
with secular elements for its entire history, and sits among other memorials in Veterans
The Memorial’s predominant use has been for Veterans Day and
Memorial Day celebrations, although three religious services were conducted at the
Memorial nearly ninety years ago. Also, the invocations and benedictions performed at
the annual veterans celebrations are not enough to cause a reasonable observer to
perceive the Memorial as an endorsement of Christianity in light of its overwhelmingly
secular history and context.
Further, guidance from Van Orden provides that the
Memorial’s ninety-year existence and fifty-year government ownership without litigation
is a strong indication that the reasonable observer perceived its secular message. See 545
U.S. at 702–03 (stating that challenged monument’s presence on government property for
forty years provided determinative factor that it conveyed predominately secular
message). The Memorial stands at a busy intersection, yet this case is the first time the
Memorial has been challenged as unconstitutional. Those fifty years strongly suggest
“that few individuals, whatever their system of beliefs, are likely to have understood the
[Memorial] as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort
. . . primarily to promote religion over nonreligion,” or to “engage in,” “compel,” or deter
any religious practice or beliefs.
Id. at 702 (quoting Schempp, 374 U.S. at 305
(Goldberg, J., concurring)); see also Buono, 559 U.S. at 716 (“Time also has played its
role. [After] nearly seven decades[,] . . . the cross and the cause it commemorated had
become entwined in the public consciousness.”). This significant passage of time must
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factor into the Court’s analysis and “help us understand that as a practical matter of
degree [the Memorial] is unlikely to prove divisive.” Van Orden, 545 U.S. at 702.
With the foregoing facts, circumstances, and principles in mind, I conclude that a
reasonable observer would understand that the Memorial, while displaying a religious
symbol, is a war memorial built to celebrate the forty-nine Prince George’s County
residents who gave their lives in battle. Such an observer would not understand the effect
of the Commission’s display of the Memorial—with such a commemorative past and set
among other memorials in a large state park—to be a divisive message promoting
Christianity over any other religion or nonreligion. A cross near a busy intersection
“need not be taken as a statement of governmental support for sectarian beliefs. The
Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of
religion’s role in society. Rather, it leaves room to accommodate divergent values within
a constitutionally permissible framework.”
Buono, 559 U.S. at 718–19 (citations
omitted). We must be careful not to push the Establishment Clause beyond its purpose in
search of complete neutrality. “[U]ntutored devotion to the concept of neutrality can lead
to invocation or approval of results which partake not simply of that noninterference and
noninvolvement with the religious which the Constitution commands,” but of extreme
commitment to the secular, “or even active, hostility to the religious.” Van Orden, 545
U.S. at 699 (quoting Schempp, 374 U.S. at 306 (Goldberg, J., concurring)). Finding that
a reasonable observer would perceive the Memorial as an endorsement of Christianity
would require that we pursue a level of neutrality beyond our constitutional mandate. I
therefore conclude that the Memorial does not violate the second factor of the Lemon test.
Pg: 47 of 48
The Lemon test’s final factor asks whether the challenged display has created an
“excessive entanglement” between government and religion. Lambeth, 407 F.3d at 272–
73. “The kind of excessive entanglement of government and religion precluded by
Lemon is characterized by ‘comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state
surveillance.’” Id. at 273 (quoting Lemon, 403 U.S. at 619). This inquiry is one of “kind
and degree,” Lynch, 465 U.S. at 684, “and because some interaction between church and
state is inevitable, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that the ‘[e]ntanglement must be
“excessive” before it runs afoul of the Establishment Clause,’” Koenick v. Felton, 190
F.3d 259, 268 (4th Cir. 1999) (quoting Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 233 (1997)).
The majority concludes that the Memorial fosters excessive entanglement because
of the Commission’s ownership and maintenance of the Memorial.
Commission’s maintenance of the Memorial and the land surrounding it could hardly be
considered the sort of state surveillance that Lemon intends to prohibit. See Lemon, 403
U.S. at 615–20 (concluding that challenged action excessively entangled state with
religion by requiring state to supplement salaries for teachers in parochial schools); see
also Mellen, 327 F.3d at 375 (determining that public university’s supper prayer violated
Lemon’s third prong because school officials “composed, mandated, and monitored a
daily prayer”). Rather, the Commission is merely maintaining a monument within a state
park and a median in between intersecting highways that must be well lit for public safety
There is no evidence that the Commission consults with any churches or
religious organizations to determine who may access the Memorial for events. Nor is
Pg: 48 of 48
there evidence that the Commission is required to be involved in any church-related
activities to maintain the Memorial.
Further, the majority observes that “any use of public funds to promote religious
doctrines violates the Establishment Clause.” Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 U.S. 589, 623
(1988) (O’Connor, J., concurring). But, in Agostini, the Supreme Court held that a
federally funded program that paid public school teachers to teach disadvantaged children
in parochial schools did not cause an excessive entanglement between church and state.
521 U.S. at 234–35. Likewise, the Commission’s use of $122,000 over the course of
fifty-plus years for lighting and upkeep is not a promotion of any religious doctrine, as
the Memorial is a historical monument honoring veterans.
I therefore conclude that the Memorial does not violate the third factor of the
This Memorial stands in witness to the VALOR, ENDURANCE, COURAGE, and
DEVOTION of the forty-nine residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland “who lost
their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world.” I cannot agree that a monument
so conceived and dedicated and that bears such witness violates the letter or spirit of the
very Constitution these heroes died to defend. Accordingly, I would affirm the district
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