The Supreme Court just decided that a giant 40-foot cross on public land is ‘secular’

  • The Supreme Court ruled that a 40-foot cross honoring World War I veterans can remain on public land in Maryland and continue to be maintained through taxpayer dollars.
  • The decision was decided 7 to 2, and Justice Samuel Alito argued in his majority opinion that the cross isn’t just a religious symbol, but rather “a symbol of sacrifice in the war.”
  • Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor both dissented.
  • “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith,” Ginsburg wrote. “Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation.”
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The Supreme Court ruled that a 40-foot cross honoring World War I veterans can remain on public land in Maryland and continue to be maintained through taxpayer dollars, a major victory for religious groups amid debates over the public display of these symbols.

While the decision was 7 to 2, those seven justices offered varying opinions about the cross and why they believed it didn’t violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring a particular religion.

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, argued that the cross isn’t just a religious symbol, but rather “a symbol of sacrifice in the war.” He noted that many secular crosses already exist, citing the logos of the Red Cross, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Bayer aspirin, and the Johnson & Johnson All Purpose First Aid Kit.

“That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts does not change the fact that the symbol took on added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials,” Alito wrote. “The Cross has also acquired historical importance with the passage of time, reminding the townspeople of the deeds and sacrifices of their predecessors as it stands among memorials to veterans of later wars.”

The decision reverses a lower-court ruling that found the cross to be unconstitutional since it’s on public land. The cross currently sits in the middle of a busy intersection in a Washington, DC suburb.

In their concurring opinion, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, who are both Jewish, sided with the majority in ruling for the cross.

“The organizers of the Peace Cross acted with the undeniably secular motive of commemorating local soliders,” they wrote. “The secular values inscribed on the Cross and its place among other memorials strengthen its message of patriotism and commemoration.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch added that “in light of today’s decision, we should be done with this business, and our lower court colleagues may dispose of cases like these on a motion to dismiss rather than enmeshing themselves for years in intractable disputes sure to generate more heat than light” – essentially meaning that he doesn’t believe people should be able to sue when offended by religious symbols.

However, not everyone agreed with the majority: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor both dissented, with Ginsburg going so far as to read her dissent from the bench, a highly unusual step for the justice.

“The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that after his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life,” Ginsburg wrote.

“For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeal have uniformly recognized … just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation.”