Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association concerning the forty-foot tall the Peace Cross at a traffic junction in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
The cross is a memorial to American solders who died in World War I. It was erected by the American Legion, completed in 1925 and is now maintained with government funds. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals has ruled that this makes it unconstitutional because it “excessively entangles the government in religion.” While the Bladensburg cross was reportedly directly inspired by a wooden cross that marked the grave of an American solider in France, the name “Peace Cross” is shared with another, older, Washington-area monument.
On October 23, 1898, President William McKinley attended the dedication of a Peace Cross marking the end of the Spanish-American War. It was erected by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee on the newly purchased grounds of Washington National Cathedral. It was the first monument on that site.
The inscription on the front of the cathedral’s Peace Cross states that its purpose was “to mark the founding of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.” It also bears a petition from the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, “That it may please Thee to give to all Nations Unity Peace and Concord, We beseech Thee to hear us Good Lord.”
On the back is the simple inscription “The Peace Cross.” The cross does not explicitly reference the Spanish-American War except to say it was erected in “the historic year 1898.” Designed by Robert W. Gibson and donated by Dr. William Cabell Rives, it was one of one of America’s first cross-shaped war memorials. A few months after the cross was erected the cathedral published a handsome Peace Cross Book containing the liturgy and addresses heard that day along with press coverage of the event.
In the conclusion to his dedicatory address, the bishop of Washington, Henry Yates Satterlee, stated that the cross was “raised to utter our fervent wish for final peace and enduring amity between America and Spain; raised as a confession of our faith that the only lasting peace for men on earth is the peace that comes from the cross of Christ” (Peace Cross Book (1899), 18.)
As the oldest, and for years the most famous, monument at the site of the cathedral, the cathedral’s peace cross surely influenced the erection and naming of the Bladensburg cross. Representatives of the American Legion had regularly participated in patriotic services held in the cathedral’s outdoor amphitheater. The Bladensburg cross is just seven miles to the east of the cathedral and ground was broken for it just twenty-one years later.
[Washington National Cathedral is owned and maintained by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, and thus is not involved in the constitutional questions before the Supreme Court.]
This post was revised on May 30, 2019.