2 judges feel atheists’ ‘offense’ at seeing cross

‘This veterans memorial has stood in honor of the fallen for almost 100 years’

Two judges on a three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals believe that atheists who claim they are offended when they drive by a veterans memorial park and see a World War I memorial cross must be appeased.

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,” wrote Jim Wynn and Stephanie Thacker in a lawsuit against the Bladensburg, Virginia, World War I memorial.

“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.”

The judges ordered the case returned to a lower court, which had upheld the constitutionality of the veterans memorial and said the appeals court was not mandating any particular action such as “removing the arms or razing the cross entirely.”

In their majority opinion, the judges referred to a “purported war memorial” and said the parties “are free to explore alternative arrangements that would not offend the Constitution.”Chief Judge Roger Gregory, the third judge on the three-judge panel, dissented, explaining the Constitution “does not require the government to purge from the public sphere any reference to religion.”

He said the U.S. Supreme Court “has consistently concluded that displays with religious content – but also with a legitimate secular use – may be permissible under the Establishment Clause.”

“The memorial has always served as a war memorial,” he said, “has been adorned with secular elements for its entire history, and sits among other memorials in Veterans Memorial Park.”

Further, over its 90-year history, it had never been accused of “offending” anyone.

The defense for the memorial has been handled by First Liberty Institute on behalf of the American Legion and others.

Spokesman Jeremy Dys said Wednesday the organization could seek a rehearing before the full circuit court or pursue a Supreme Court appeal.

“All options are on the table,” he told WND, noting the lawyers “still need to review the opinion and discuss options with our client.”

Hiram Sasser, chief counsel for First Liberty, said the Fourth Circuit opinion “sets dangerous precedent by completely ignoring history, and it threatens removal and destruction of veterans memorials across America.”

Michael Carvin, lead counsel for the legion, said the memorial “has stood in honor of local veterans for almost 100 years and is lawful under the First Amendment.”

“To remove it would be a tremendous dishonor to the local men who gave their lives during The Great War.”

The memorial, he said, “stands in witness to the VALOR, ENDURANCE, COURAGE, and DEVOTION of the 49 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,” Gregory said.

WND previously reported the case against the 40-foot-tall cross at the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg.

The Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial has been a target of the American Human Association and others for several years.

The AHA, joined by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, claimed in district court that the memorial violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. At the trial court, a federal judge decided the claim was nonsense and upheld the rights of the state to maintain the memorial.

“This veterans memorial has stood in honor of the fallen for almost 100 years,and should be allowed to stand for 100 years more,” Noel Francisco, lead counsel for the American Legion, said earlier in the case. “We stand ready to defend the memorial and the men it honors against this meritless attack.”

The memorial was launched by a community group at the time of World War I and later completed by the American Legion to contain a plaque listing the names of 49 men from Prince George’s County who died in the conflict.

The site eventually came under government control because although it was built on private land, the local highways over the years expanded to the point the state thought safety issues were significant enough to take control of the site, which is now in a median.

Supporters explained earlier: “The memorial was built as a memorial, it has only ever been used as a memorial, and it has always been regarded by the community as a memorial. The Establishment Clause does not require the court to reach into this community and tear out a cherished landmark.”

In the wake of the recent Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial victory and the ongoing battle for the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial in Maryland, yet another veterans memorial is being attacked—this time in the small town of Knoxville, Iowa.
The memorial in question isn’t particularly elaborate. Made of plywood and strapped to a flag poll, the memorial depicts the silhouette of a soldier and his rifle, kneeling with head bowed before a small cross-shaped grave marker of a fallen comrade in arms.
It was hand-carved by 67-year-old Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient Al Larsen, who donated the memorial to the local American Veterans (AMVETS) Post 63. The AMVETS group placed the memorial in Knoxville’s Young’s Park just months ago to honor fallen veterans—including Larsen’s best friend who died serving in Vietnam.  Identical veterans memorials were already on display outside the local VFW and American Legion posts.
Larsen carved many of these memorials as a hobby. The cross-shaped grave marker is meant to represent the thousands of similar grave markers commemorating fallen American soldiers in American military cemeteries around the world. The depiction is of a cutout soldier kneeling to mourn the loss of a fellow warrior.
“This memorial represents me and my best friend,” Larsen said. “That’s me kneeling at his grave. He was killed November 17 and I got shot November 18. This is my memorial to him and his sacrifice. I want it to stay up for him.”
But Americans United for Separation of Church and State won’t take that for an answer. The group sent a letter to the City of Knoxville on August 17, demanding the memorial’s removal, claiming that it was unconstitutional because it contained a cross and sat in a city park. The letter was met with no small amount of opposition.
On August 30, a crowd of several thousand, including hundreds of veterans, gathered in Young’s Park to show their support for the memorial.
Knoxville, population 7,300, is home to branches of the American Legion, VFW, and AMVETS. The town runs rampant with support for the military—and the contested memorial.
Even city officials were caught off-guard by The Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s demands.
“We’re not looking to do anything wrong; we’re not looking to offend anybody,” Mayor Brian Hatch said. “We don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this that what it was.”
Larsen’s kneeling soldier isn’t the first veterans memorial to Grace Young’s Park. The Freedom Rock, a large boulder featuring several patriotic murals, sits just feet away and has long symbolized the City’s patriotism.
“It only makes sense [for the memorial] to go there,” Hatch told the Des Moines Register. “The whole entire area there is only for one purpose, and that’s to honor veterans.”
In light of the overflow of support for Larsen’s memorial—including verbal support from presidential candidates like Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal—the City Council decided last Tuesday to try to keep the memorial right where it is.