Saint Patrick’s Day has evolved beyond its original purpose to honor the patron saint of Ireland into an occasion to celebrate all things Irish and don the color green. It is also an opportunity to recall the contributions the Irish have made to America, like three New York regiments of the Irish Brigade that fought for the Union during the Civil War. But did you know that the fate of a cross-shaped monument that memorializes their sacrifice in Gettysburg, Pa. is directly tied to a case about another cross-shaped veterans memorial currently before the Supreme Court?
The Court is poised to decide a case on the constitutionality of a WWI-era veterans memorial in Bladensburg, Md. A lower court ruled that the memorial was unconstitutional because it was tall and cross-shaped, maintained by some funds set aside by the local government, and located on public property.
If you have heard any discussion of the federal judiciary, you have likely heard about the current administration’s efforts to put “originalist,” “conservative” judges on the federal bench. While interpreting the Constitution with “reference to historical practices and understandings” might sound unrelated to day-to-day life, it is in fact quite relevant. This principled approach to law enables judges to “uphold our constitutional values for decades to come.” And it is an approach that helps preserve the role of religion in the public square—including the Irish Brigade Monument, which is on public property and inspired by religious imagery.
The Irish Brigade was “legendary” and “a force to be reckoned with.” Much like the Gold Star mothers and local veterans who dedicated the memorial in Bladensburg, Md., their survivors wanted to remember their valor. So they chose a symbol, the Celtic Cross, because “it is an emblem of Ireland, typical of faith and devotion, and the most appropriate that could be raised to hand down to posterity the bravery of our race in the great cause of American liberty.”
A ruling against the memorial in Bladensburg, Md., could set a bad precedent for religious displays across the nation. But even a ruling in favor of the memorial, untethered to reasoning rooted in an originalist understanding of the Constitution, could leave a display like the Irish Brigade Monument in limbo. Presently, the Supreme Court has provided no clear, guiding principle about such displays. But an originalist, conservative interpretation should be able to find support in our nation’s historical practices to uphold the constitutionality of a display inspired by religious themes, even if not every citizen might agree with every principle it evokes. As a federal appellate judge pointed out, there is “lots of history underlying the practice of placing and maintaining crosses on public land.”
The Irish Brigade Monument isn’t alone. Not far from Bladensburg, Md., is Arlington National Cemetery, where the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice and the Argonne Cross stand in remembrance of the alliances built during WWI. And there are plenty of other historical crosses on public property. The above federal appellate judge took the time to name just a few others along with the Irish Brigade Monument:
- San Buenaventura Mission Cross (Grant Park, Ventura, California)
- Cross Mountain Cross (Cross Mountain Park, Fredericksburg, Texas)
- Chapel of the Centurion (Fort Monroe, Hampton, Virginia)
- Jeannette Monument (United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland)
- Horse Fountain Cross (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)
- Father Serra Cross (Monterey, California)
- Wayside Cross (New Canaan, Connecticut)
History and the Constitution permit the presence of these historic monuments—even on public land. Posterity demands that we keep the memory of our veterans “green in the American heart.” We hope that, come June, the Supreme Court will agree.