Appeals court denies bid to reconsider ruling on Peace Cross

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BLADENSBURG, Md. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a request to reconsider its ruling that a 40-foot-tall (12-meter) cross on a Maryland highway median just outside Washington violates the U.S. Constitution, prompting supporters of the war memorial to vow to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A divided 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 8-6 to deny a request from the American Legion and other supporters of the 93-year-old World War I monument known as the Peace Cross to rehear the case before the full court.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit ruled in October that having the monument on public land "excessively entangles the government in religion."

Judge Paul Niemeyer, one of six judges who disagreed with the ruling, said he believes the full court should hear the case because the decision has far-reaching consequences and "needlessly puts at risk hundreds of monuments with similar symbols standing on public grounds across the country," including Arlington National Cemetery, where large crosses commemorate fallen soldiers.

Construction of the cross was completed in 1925 after a group of mothers decided to build a memorial to honor their sons and others from Prince George's County, Maryland, who died in World War I. The mothers chose a cross to mirror the cross-shaped grave markers in the foreign cemeteries where their sons were buried, according to the American Legion, which helped build the memorial in Bladensburg. A large bronze tablet lists the names of 49 residents who died.

In the early 1960s, the property where the monument was built was deeded to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission because it had become a highway safety issue due to its location in the median of a busy intersection. The monument is still maintained by the commission.

The American Humanist Association, an atheist group that advocates for the separation of church and state, challenged the constitutionality of the cross, saying it endorses Christianity while ignoring non-Christian veterans.

The group said it was pleased with the ruling.

"It would be hard to find a more clear example of governmental endorsement of religion than a 40-foot Christian cross in the middle of a busy intersection," American Humanist Association Legal Director David A. Niose said in a statement.

A U.S. District Court judge found that the cross does not violate the constitution, but the three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit overturned that ruling. The panel found that the memorial "aggrandizes the Latin cross" to the extent that someone who sees it would conclude that the government entity that owns it endorses Christianity.

Hiram Sasser, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based law firm representing The American Legion, said the group intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

"We're going to put every possible resource into preserving this memorial. We just feel like we owe it to the memory of those 49 soldiers, sailors and Marines who died fighting for this country."

A spokesperson for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did not immediately respond to a request for comment. After the 4th Circuit panel found the memorial was unconstitutional, Hogan called the ruling "an affront to all veterans."

A spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, said the next step likely will be to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

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