War memorials are close to the heart of every veteran, especially those of us who have served in a time of conflict. You do not really appreciate war memorials until you have lost a buddy or two and then come home. In American Legion v. American Humanist Assoc., No. 17-1717 (6/20/2019), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed a World War I memorial in Maryand that was erected in 1925. The memorial is a large Latin cross, meaning the traditional Cristian cross, with the names of 49 Prince Goerge veterans who were lost in the war. It is situated on state owned land. It is known locally as the peace cross.
The American Humanists argue that the cross represents Christianity. The government supports the monument by maintaining the grounds and allowing the cross to remain. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the American Legion. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals then reversed, saying the cross was clearly a Christian symbol. The Fourth Circuit suggested the arms be cut off, to make it simply an up and down pillar.
The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit. The court, Justice Alito writing the mostly majority opinion, made the point that 90 years later, it is inherently difficult to ascertain the purpose behind selecting a Latin cross. Too, over hundreds of years, the Cristian cross has taken on secular meaning. One finds the Christian cross everywhere from the Swiss flag, to the Red Cross symbol, to military awards, such as the Distinguished Cross and the Navy Cross. The simple Christian cross came to symbolize the WW I cemeteries. Even the poem, “Flander’s Field,” the well-known poem from WW I, has this refrain:
“In Flander’s fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.”
The court makes the point that the Latin cross has taken on a secular meaning. And, notes the court, it makes sense that we would use symbols that were important to the deceased to memorialize those same deceased veterans. As one mother said when she donated $25 to the cross fund in the 1920’s, that cross symbolizes to her her son’s grave stone. Her son who was killed in France during the war. See the opinion here.
In this day when we seem to anxious to pull down veteran memorials relating to the Civil War, we note the court’s remark that a host of motivations play a role when a memorial is erected. The motives of the builders, of the entity that accepts the monument, of those who make donations. It is difficult to ascertain the motives behind these ancient memorials.