The use of memorials to commemorate sacrifice dates back to ancient times. And following the high casualty rates of World War I, many countries used Latin crosses and other religious symbols as headstone markers in cemeteries to honor fallen servicemen and women.
But in recent years, veteran memorials have come under attack due to the religious symbols they depict. The secularist organizations filing lawsuits against memorials usually claim that their religious imagery violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
According to legal experts at First Liberty Institute, those claims are untrue and unfounded—and an affront to those who served.
Mike Berry, First Liberty Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs, shared his thoughts on the issue as a U.S. Marine veteran.
“If anti-religious groups succeed in tearing down…any veterans memorial in our nation,” Berry wrote, “it would be the modern-day equivalent of what happened to Vietnam veterans” who, he explained, were often mistreated upon their return home from war.
Further, Berry and other experts warn that legal precedents to tear down one or two veterans memorials with crosses or other religious imagery could lead to a wholesale uprooting of religious expression that is part of America’s heritage, including crosses at Arlington National Cemetery and other national cemeteries.
That would fundamentally transform America’s cultural identity—a makeover into a sterile, secular society where symbols used for centuries to solemnize love of country are simply wiped from our landscape.
FIRST LIBERTY’S DEFENSE OF VETERANS MEMORIALS
First Liberty has fought to protect veterans memorials from secularist lawsuits, including the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross, the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial Cross in San Diego, California, and the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial in Maryland.
Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) erected the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross in 1934 to specifically honor World War I veterans. In 2000, a U.S. National Park superintendent instructed Henry Sandoz, then caretaker of the cross, to remove it. When he refused, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2001, arguing that the cross was a violation of the establishment clause. First Liberty filed an amicus brief on behalf of the VFW, and in 2010 the Supreme Court, citing First Liberty’s brief 12 times, ruled that the cross and the land it was on could be transferred to the VFW in exchange for another section of land owned by Sandoz. In 2012, more than 200 supporters showed up for the rededication of the memorial cross.
In the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Salazar v. Buono, in which First Liberty helped successfully make the case for preserving the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
“But a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol 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. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”
Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial
The Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial was erected in 1954 in San Diego, California. The memorial is a 29 foot cross surrounded by the photos, names, and religious symbols of over 3,500 veterans who have served in the military. But in 2006, Congress acquired the memorial and the ACLU filed a lawsuit, claiming it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The federal district court in San Diego ruled that it was not a violation, claiming that in acquiring the memorial, Congress acted with the sole purpose of preserving a secular national veterans memorial, which had a primarily “patriotic and nationalistic” effect. In 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the district court, claiming the cross was unconstitutional and must be torn down.
“As a veteran myself, seeing Mt Soledad Veterans Memorial torn down would feel like my service and sacrifice was spat upon,” Berry wrote while the legal battle was still ongoing. “And for those veterans who actually were spat upon, I’m certain that it would reopen those wounds for many of them.”
After First Liberty’s legal action, the memorial was successfully sold in 2015 to the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association (MSMA), thus ending the ACLU’s attempt to have the memorial destroyed.
The Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial
The Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial was erected in the shape of a cross in 1925 to honor the brave men from Prince George County, Maryland who lost their lives in World War I. At the base of the cross are 49 names honoring those who died. In 2014, the American Humanist Association filed a complaint against the memorial, stating that due to the public ownership and maintenance of the memorial, it violated the Establishment Clause. In November 2015, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland ruled that the memorial was constitutional. A month later, the American Humanist Association filed an appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. This case is ongoing, and First Liberty will continue to represent the defense.
PRESERVING OUR HERITAGE; HONORING OUR HEROES
The protection of these memorials is not only vital to honor all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, but also to protect religious liberty and sustain a heritage that is integral to America’s identity. If a veterans memorial can be removed just because it contains the shape of a cross, what else will be at stake? And if other memorials such as these are torn down, any other memorials are in danger, such as the Argonne Cross in Arlington Cemetery, and the removal of the word “God” from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Now is the time to stand up and protect these memorials, to both honor the heroes who have served in defense of freedom, and for protection of that freedom itself.
News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.