No one was sure whether Veterans Day 2018 would be the last for the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial in Maryland. The Memorial had survived 93 years, but a federal appeals court declared it unconstitutional because of its cross shape. Some were ready to prepare the bulldozers. The legal battle over the Memorial eventually reached the Supreme Court of the United States, which earlier this year upheld the constitutionality of the Memorial by a 7-2 vote.
On Veterans Day this year, the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial will observe its 94th memorial service, honoring not just the 49 men memorialized on its pedestal, but all those who have fought for the freedoms we enjoy.
Each year, The American Legion, caretakers of the “Peace Cross,” organize a memorial service, as it does at many other sites across the nation. The American Legion does so to honor those who have selflessly sacrificed for our freedom. But while the legal battle over the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial may be over, it serves as a reminder that the fight for freedom demands vigilance.
Moreover, it is a fight that too often finds its way from the battlefield into our nation’s courtrooms. In The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the landmark First Amendment case over the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial, the Supreme Court upheld the Memorial’s constitutionality.
The Court’s decision reset the legal playing field for religious expression on government property, making clear that the Constitution forbids blatant hostility against religious symbols, displays, and practices simply because one or more observers claim to be offended. Yet despite the Court’s decision, some continue their mission to seek and destroy public displays that include religious symbols or expression.
Earlier this year, an anti-religious freedom group sued the Manchester VA Medical Center, in New Hampshire, because it allowed a private organization to create POW/MIA Remembrance Table that includes a Bible.
The private organization, the Northeast POW/MIA Network, created and maintains the table in order to honor and remember those who were POWs or those declared Missing In Action. The Bible included in the display belonged to Herman “Herk” Streitburger, who spent time in a German POW camp during WWII before his daring escape. Herk’s Bible symbolizes the strength gained through faith that sustained him throughout his captivity.
In Arkansas, a privately-donated Ten Commandments monument authorized by the Arkansas legislature faced a lawsuit less than 24 hours after it was erected. The monument, which was placed on the capitol grounds in 2018, is virtually identical to the Ten Commandments monument the Supreme Court upheld in its 2005 decision, Van Orden v. Perry.
The legal fight over the Arkansas monument continues. In South Carolina, just days after The American Legion decision, an anti-religion organization demanded that the city of Tega Cay remove a memorial to fallen police officers because the memorial included the word, “Lord.”
After originally erasing the word “Lord,” First Liberty intervened and explained that The American Legion decision no longer requires such censorship, city officials wisely reversed course. The descendants of the 49 men honored on the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial are particularly thankful this year that the memory of their loved ones will continue to be honored.
But the battle to honor our nation’s veterans did not end in Bladensburg, Maryland. The odds that any given case will make it to the Supreme Court is less than 1 percent. Anti-religion activists are counting on those odds in their ceaseless efforts to purge America of religious freedom as the Founders understood it.
If America is to continue to be “the last best hope of Earth,” religious freedom is perhaps America’s first best hope. Thus, it now falls to us, as free citizens, to fight to preserve the God-given freedoms we enjoy. And in this battle, First Liberty Institute plans to be first in the fight, and we plan on winning.
Mike Berry is Chief of Staff for First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans.