American Humanist Association, Steven Lowe, Fred Edwords, and Bishop McNeill, v. Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission
In 2014, the American Humanist Association brought suit against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, challenging the government’s ownership and maintenance of a 40 foot-tall Christian cross towering over a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland.
The United States District Court of Maryland upheld the constitutionality of the cross and the AHA appealed. Following oral arguments in December 2016, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the order of the district court and ruled the cross unconstitutional in October 2017. The court reasoned:
“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.
. . .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.”
The government filed a motion for rehearing en banc, asking the entire Fourth Circuit to rehear and then reverse the ruling. In March 2018, the majority of active judges on the Fourth Circuit Court voted against the government’s motion and upheld the decision finding the cross unconstitutional. In his separate opinion on the decision to deny the government’s request for en banc review, Judge Wynn reiterated:
“Our holding that the State’s ongoing ownership and maintenance of the Bladensburg Cross violated the Establishment Clause recognizes that to hold otherwise would require this Court to accept the Commission’s conclusion that the Latin cross does not have the ‘principal or primary effect’ of advancing the Christian faith. To give the judiciary the power to prescribe and proscribe the meaning of an unadorned, traditionally religious symbol like the Latin cross would infringe on intensely personal and sacred questions of religious meaning and belief. . . .
To allow this Court to circumscribe the Bladensburg Cross’s meaning and power, as the Commission and its amici request, would empower this Court to diminish the Latin cross’s many years of accrued religious symbolism, and thereby amount to the state degradation of religion that the Framers feared and sought to proscribe.”
In June 2018, the government and the American Legion petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari. In late July and early August, 2018, AHA filed briefs in opposition in both pending petitions up for consideration. On November 2, granting and consolidating the governments’ and American Legion’s petitions, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear arguments from the American Humanist Association.
Monica Miller, senior counsel, delivered oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States on February 27, 2019.
The Supreme Court issued a decision on June 20, 2019.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Selected Case Documents:
District Court (Case No. 8:14-cv-00550-DKC):
Appeal (Case No. 15-2597):
American Legion Supreme Court Petition for Certiorari (Case No. 17-1717):
Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission Supreme Court Petition for Certiorari (Case No. 18-18):
Supreme Court Arguments:
Selected Media Coverage:
The Washington Post (March 2, 2018)
The Economist (March 6, 2018)
The New York Times (October 29, 2017)
Fox News (March 4, 2014)
June 20, 2019
February 27, 2019
January 23, 2019
November 2, 2018
March 1, 2018
November 20, 2017
November 20, 2017
October 18, 2017
December 6, 2016
April 19, 2016
February 29, 2016
December 28, 2015
May 4, 2015
September 5, 2012