A complaint filed by an atheist group asking for the removal of Bladensburg’s Peace Cross — a longtime community fixture dedicated to Prince George’s County veterans — has stoked debate and opposition from officials and residents across the county.
The Peace Cross was dedicated in 1925 in honor of the Prince George’s County World War I veterans. It stands 40 feet tall with a large gold star in the center. Its base contains the words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage” and “Devotion” and a bronze tablet containing a quote from President Woodrow Wilson.
The American Humanist Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates on behalf of humanist and atheist causes, filed a complaint last month with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission saying that the cross, which falls on the commission’s land and sits at the intersection of Md. 450 and U.S. 1, is an unconstitutional use of a religious symbol on public land. The group said it will take the battle to court if no action is taken.
“I am definitely in opposition to taking down the Peace Cross,” said Bladensburg Mayor Walter Lee James Jr. “It is not a religious symbol. It is a symbol to remember those who gave their lives to protect the rights and freedoms of our county.”
A petition on change.org opposing the move by the AHA has attracted more than 2,000 supporters.
Phillip Holdcraft, commander of the American Legion 131 in Colmar Manor, said the post strongly opposed the complaint and said they viewed the cross as a monument to veterans rather than a religious symbol. The American Legion erected the monument in the 1920s.
“To dishonor the WWI veterans does not make us happy,” Holdcraft said. “They have a right to their opinion, but it does not make us happy that they have that opinion.”
Mark Garber, associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, said if the case goes to court, the question for the judges will be what a neutral observer would get from looking at the monument.
“Is that cross a peace symbol?” Garber said.
Garber said liberal judges tend to view crosses on public lands as a Christian symbol, while more conservative justices do not. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Salazar v. Buono that a cross monument to WWI veterans in the Mojave Desert on land controlled by National Parks Service was allowable after the land had been turned over to a private owner.
Cheverly resident Gerald Islar said the Peace Cross deserves to be respected.
“We are Christians, but it has never dawned on me as a religious thing at all,” Islar said.
Brian Magee, communications associate for the AHA, said he understands the concerns of residents given that the cross has been in the area for so long.
“But when you are looking at something that is unconstitutional, you can’t have any sort of caveats on that,” he said. “I know it is uncomfortable but it is the right thing to do.”
Magee said his group targeted the cross because it had received complaints from residents about it. The complaint is not a slap in the face to veterans, he said, pointing out that there could be numerous remedies to the situation, which could include turning the property over to a private owner or modifying the monument so it is not explicitly religious.
Adrian R. Gardner, general counsel for the M-NCPPC, said he could not comment on the complaint, and still was looking at the legal issues surrounding the matter.
William Bonilla of Bladensburg said he enjoyed seeing the cross as part of the community.
“Everyone has their own opinions or beliefs,” he said. “I think it looks right the way it is.”