Bladensburg Peace Cross should come down, atheist group argues

The cross sits at the corner of Route 1 and Bladensburg Road. Photo: © 2010 by Ken Firestone, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

The town of Bladensburg is renowned as one of the most important battle sites of the War of 1812. Two centuries later, a memorial that pays tribute to those who fought and died in another major conflict is causing a battle of its own.

In 1922, the American Legion installed a landmark known as the Peace Cross. A year later, the memorial was dedicated to county residents who fought and died in World War I. It can't be missed; the 40-foot tall cross stands where Route 1 and Bladensburg Road converge near the mouth of the Anacostia River.

However, the American Humanist Association, a national organization that promotes a philosophy of values and equality for humanists, atheists and agnostics, wants the cross taken down. They say that having a religious symbol on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission violates the separation of church and state.

"It's on government property and that sends a message that Christianity is preferred by the government," Bill Burgess, the legal counsel for the American Humanist Association, said. "I'd like them to agree to just take it down."

While the M-NCPPC is reviewing the demand and declined to comment, the American Legion says it's a slap in the face to veterans.

The Legion and other veterans insist that the cross - and all other monuments like it - symbolize sacrifice as much as anything.

"If it wasn't for us, they wouldn't have a right to protest to start with anyway," American Legion Post 131 member Dane Weber said.

The battle over the Peace Cross isn't isolated, especially when it comes to the American Humanist Association. As America has gotten more diverse and secular, atheist and humanist groups are mounting more and more challenges like these nationwide.

Their results have been mixed. American Atheists are currently suing to remove the famous steel cross that was salvaged from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 from the 9/11 memorial in Lower Manhattan. However, the Supreme Court ruled that a cross in the Mojave Desert that honors veterans can stay; however, that go-ahead only came after the land it sits on was transferred to a private owner.

"Those who are non-believers are more open (and) more willing to step forward," Burgess said. "I admit there's going to be controversy about this."

The American Humanist Association says it's giving the M-NCPPC two weeks to respond, and if the cross doesn't come down, they'll likely take this battle to court.

It's a battle that Weber and other veterans are ready to fight.

"To me, it is not a religious symbol," he said. "It is a memorial to the veterans that served."