As a local humanist, I find it wholly unacceptable that Alaska Attorney General Kevin G. Clarkson has signed onto an amicus brief in support of the massive Christian cross in Bladensburg, Maryland.
This case is currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and has the potential to redefine how the country interprets religious liberty and the Establishment Clause. AG Clarkson had the opportunity to support an initiative to honor every service member and fallen veteran, regardless of their religious faith. Instead they are endorsing the Maryland government’s unconstitutional promotion of the Christian faith.
The 40-foot-tall Latin cross was intentionally designed to resemble the Christian Cavalry Cross. It’s publicly owned and maintained with taxpayer funds. In fact, the local government has already spent more than $117,000 in maintenance of the religious symbol and has earmarked an additional $100,000 for refurbishment and repairs.
More than that, this cross has carried Christian meaning since its very inception. In 1919, ground was broken for the cross on public land owned by the Town of Bladensburg. The project was initiated by the Good Roads League to memorialize World War I veterans. Their intent was to create a “mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the Bible.”
Donors signed a pledge stating that they “trust[ed] in God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe.” However, given the unveiling of a secular World War I memorial at the county courthouse around that time, many local citizens did not support the sectarian memorial.
In 1922, the original committee abandoned their efforts. The cross sat unfinished and quickly became an eyesore. The town gave the local American Legion post the “care” of the land for the “completion” of the cross. The Legion held memorial services around the unfinished cross, at which a Christian pastor led prayer and those in attendance sang the Christian hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.”
The cross was officially dedicated in 1925 at an elaborate ceremony featuring government officials and Christian clergy exclusively. The keynote speaker, Maryland Representative Stephen Gambrill, proclaimed: “by the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary, let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.”
A Roman Catholic priest and a Baptist minister delivered Christian prayers. No other religions were represented. Frank Mountford, leading evangelist, held three “Sunday services” at the cross in 1931. In 1935, the State Roads Commission claimed it owned the land, and in 1956 the circuit court ruled that the State of Maryland was the rightful owner of the property.
In 1960, the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission, a bi-county agency of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, acquired the cross from the State Roads Commission for the purposes of “the future repair and maintenance of the monument.”
In 1985, the commission spent $100,000 in taxpayer dollars on substantial renovations to the cross, followed by a grandiose rededication ceremony that was co-hosted by the Town of Bladensburg to rededicate the cross to veterans of “all wars.” The commission invited a priest, Father Chimiak, to deliver prayers, and later sent a letter thanking him “for his contributions to our programs and trust we may assimilate this relationship again.”
In the intervening years, the cross has continued to serve as a purported tribute to “veterans of all wars” rather than the 49 men named on the plaque who died in World War I.
A cross is wholly unacceptable on public land and it is unable to fairly represent and honor veterans of all wars. Veterans of all faiths and none have served and died for our Constitution. The amicus brief that AG Clarkson signed onto fails to recognize the very rights for which those courageous veterans fought.
— Carrie Henson, president Last Frontier Freethinkers, Soldotna