There is a constitutional fight brewing over whether the Memorial Peace Cross must be removed from the side of the road in the small town of Bladensburg, Md. The 40-foot cross was erected in 1925 by the local chapter of the American Legion to honor 49 soldiers who had died in World War I. When the cross was first put in place, it was located on private property. The land it sits on was later transferred to a governmental agency, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, as part of a 1960 road-improvement plan.
Now, the American Humanist Association, an organization that represents atheists and other "non-theists," is claiming that the presence of the cross on governmental property constitutes an unconstitutional establishment of religion and is asking the commission to take it down.
Our nation's Founders did not want the government to be taking sides in religious debates. The young nation's leaders strove to avoid any action that, in the words of James Madison, "degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority." Passage of the First Amendment was motivated, in large part, by religious denominations, such as Baptists and Quakers, who had faced bitter discrimination at the hands of state and local governments.
But the framers did not believe that every acknowledgement of religion communicated second-class citizenship to those with differing belief systems. Consider, for example, Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom, which prohibited any governmental attempt either to collect money for religious activities or to reward those of a particular religion. Jefferson began his call for protecting religious freedom by stating that, "Almighty God hath created the mind free" and that "all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burdens, or by civil incapacitations ... are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion ... " These religious phrases were not seen as divisive or insulting, but as describing a principle of universal appeal.
Similarly, when George Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789, he chose deliberately inclusive religious language. Without referring to any particular faith, he recommended that people be devoted "to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be ... ."
Though unmistakably religious, Washington's proclamation displays an awareness of the diversity of religious belief across the nation and the need to respect religious pluralism. The nondenominational religious language that appeared in the speeches of Washington, Jefferson and many others, teach us that the framing generation did not intend to erase all religious speech from the public square. They believed that the American understanding of freedom of religion would only be violated if the government were to endorse religion in such a way that it sent a message to those not of the majority religion that they were not full members of the political community, or that communicated that only certain faiths could be considered favored insiders.
The Memorial Peace Cross does not send such a divisive, sectarian message. A cross can have multiple meanings, and in the context of its particular history, this cross does not communicate a government preference for Christianity. Instead, it is a symbol of respect for fallen veterans, which has stood in peace for more than three-quarters of a century. It declares on its base its own universal and nonsectarian message: "We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts."
When he served as commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington warned those colonists who disrespected minority religions, "While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience in others." Similarly, atheists and others, who rightfully demand their own freedom to believe as they wish, should be careful to respect the rights and feelings of others.
Michael I. Meyerson, author of "Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America" (Yale University Press, 2012) is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.