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Veterans' cross in Maryland at the center of national battle

BLADENSBURG — Fred Edwords remembers the first time he saw the giant cross rising over this small town in Prince George's County.

The Peace Cross, as it's known locally, commemorates the county's World War I dead. A plaque at the base of the 40-foot structure lists 39 names, and includes a quote from President Woodrow Wilson. There's no figure of Jesus, or religious imagery or text of any kind.

But to Edwords, who lives in nearby Greenbelt, it looked unmistakably like the Christian crosses of his Protestant youth, standing on a government-owned median strip at the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1.

"I thought, 'Well, that's odd. What's that doing there?'" he recalled. "That certainly gives the impression of government endorsement of religion. ... I just wondered how that kind of thing had continued."

Now Edwords wants to put an end to it -- with a lawsuit that is drawing national attention, from atheists and agnostics on one side and Christians and veterans on the other.

Edwords, who is national director of the United Coalition of Reason -- a Washington-based umbrella organization for atheists, agnostics, humanists and others, noted for its "Good without God" billboards -- is asking a federal judge to order local officials to take the cross down.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, is the latest to target a war memorial cross on public land in the United States.

In California, the Mount Soledad Cross, a 43-foot structure that looms over the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego, has been the target of litigation since the 1980s. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in 2011 that the Korean War memorial violated the separation of church and state, and a federal judge has ordered its removal. But the order has been stayed pending appeals, and supporters have signaled plans to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Another long-running dispute, over a World War I memorial cross in the federally owned Mojave National Preserve, now appears to be over. In 2012, a federal judge approved the transfer of the land to the California Veterans of Foreign Wars; the National Park Service has installed a fence around the parcel with signs to indicate that the plot is private property.

Edwords is joined in the suit by two other men and the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that he once served as executive director. In court papers, they say that displaying the structure on public land "amounts to the endorsement and advancement of religion (and specifically, an endorsement of and affiliation with Christianity)," in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which controls the land, is contesting the suit, but saying little about it.

"Right now, we're trying to protect the taxpayers of Prince George's County from the undue burden or expense of having to remove the landmark, which has been in place for nearly a century," said spokeswoman Kira Calm Lewis.

The commission's attorneys have filed court papers disputing the plaintiffs' claims, but declined to comment for this story.

Away from the commission, a movement has arisen to defend the cross. A Facebook group has attracted more than 3,300 members from around the country. Supporters have gathered more than 6,000 signatures for an online petition. A "Save The Peace Cross" rally is planned for Saturday.

The American Legion, which raised the bulk of the money to erect the cross in 1925, is asking the court to allow it to join the case.

The legion argues that the cross has been used for generations by the military, not only in memorials and monuments, but also in medals and insignia.

"I think it's pretty clear to most of us who have served that the cross is not specifically religious imagery," said Mark Seavey, an attorney for the legion and an Army veteran. "It has more to do with a sense of loss, a sense of sacrifice."

Monica Miller, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, says such usage doesn't "secularize" the symbol.

"The courts have been nearly unanimous in concluding that war memorial crosses are Christian symbols," she said. "They're not generic just because they serve a second purpose of also being a memorial. ... It's the iconic symbol of Christianity."

Nor did the creators of the Peace Cross shy from religion when describing their project, Miller says.

Donors who funded its construction were asked to sign a pledge that affirmed their trust in "God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe" and included references to "the way of godliness, justice and liberty" and "our motto, 'One God, One Country and one Flag,' " the plaintiffs write in the lawsuit.

At a ceremony to dedicate the memorial, then-Rep. Stephen W. Gambrills said the cross was "symbolic of Calvary," The Washington Post reported at the time. Calvary is where Christians believe Jesus was crucified. The Peace Cross still is used for ceremonies that include prayers, Miller says.

The American Legion is represented by the Liberty Institute, a legal group based outside Dallas that says its mission is "to defend and restore religious liberty across America -- in our schools, for our churches, in the military, and throughout the public arena."

Liberty Institute attorney Roger Byron notes that the Peace Cross is one of several memorials in the area. Since it was dedicated, it has been joined by monuments commemorating World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a monument that contained the Ten Commandments at the Texas State Capitol in Austin was constitutionally permissible in part because it was one element in a larger collection of markers on the grounds.

The Peace Cross, Byron said, was "erected in an area that has been known as Veterans Memorial Park. Surrounded by other veterans memorials. Inscribed with an enormous seal of the American Legion on both sides of the memorial, an enormous plaque and words of honor and remembrance. I mean, it could not be clearer what this memorial is for."

In Bladensburg, Miller says, the cross dwarfs the other monuments. The structure stands alone and 40 feet tall at the center of the median. The other monuments are across the street, the closest at least 200 feet away, she says, the largest 10 feet tall.

"From the reasonable observer's standpoint," she said, "those might as well not be there at all."

Edwords says a land transfer in Bladensburg -- similar to the one in Mojave National Preserve -- would not address his concerns, because the cross still would enjoy a place of prominence between government roads.

He also says the current location is unsafe, for both the structure, which risks damage from car pollution and is showing signs of wear, and for those who would visit it. There is no crosswalk to the median on which it stands, or any sidewalk around it.

"You have to break the law and take your life in your hands in order to read the plaque on the cross," he said. "For all of this talk that it's a war memorial and not a religious symbol, nobody really seems to care much about getting that plaque where anybody can actually access it."

Edwords says the structure should be sold and moved to a church or a legion hall.

At the closest American Legion hall -- Colmar Manor Post 131, less than a mile from the memorial -- members of the lunchtime crowd one recent afternoon said the cross should remain where it is.

"It's a memorial for our fallen," said 67-year-old Robert Howerton, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Air Force, now retired from the federal government. "We're not espousing religion or anything. It's all about the veterans."

"Whoever's pushing the lawsuit's obviously got more money than brains," said Andrew Cox, 54, a Calvert County contractor whose father served with the Army in the Pacific during World War II. "There's probably 200 different ways to get in and out of D.C. You don't have to drive by that cross if it offends you."

Supporters are planning a demonstration at the cross on Saturday.

"This is a WWI Veteran's Memorial that has been standing for nearly 90 years," reads an online announcement. "Help us continue to honor our fallen heroes from long ago."

Edwords says there would be no counter-demonstration.

"I just hope they don't try to cross that intersection," he said. "I hope nobody gets hurt."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

 

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