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Waging war against war monuments

Waging war against war monuments
Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, briefed The American Legion's Legislative Commission on March 24 about the continuing war being waged nationwide against America's war monuments that feature crosses and other Christian symbols. (Photo by Lucas Carter)

The senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Eric Baxter, briefed The American Legion's Legislative Commission on March 24 about the continuing war being waged nationwide against America's war monuments that feature crosses and other Christian symbols.

Groups such as the American Humanist Association argue that such symbols, located on state or federal land, violate the separation of church and state, which is mandated in the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. These groups argue that such monuments should be removed or transferred to private property.

"Let's be honest. Crosses are not just a symbol of Christianity, but they are a widely known symbol of death and sacrifice," Baxter said. "History should be a reminder to us that we cannot see religious liberty just through the lens of our own religions." In America, "great discord exists on the importance of religion in public life" as society continues to weigh religious liberty against government interests.

"Not every situation is the same, and our effort is to urge the courts to consider carefully, and weigh always, what is the religious liberty interest, what is (its) sincerity and history, against what is the government's compelling interest in  overriding that."

Noting that the Dalai Lama recently opened a Senate session with a prayer, that the Holocaust Museum contains Jewish religious artifacts, and some national monuments include religious rock drawings, Baxter said "to suggest that the government is trying to coerce us into Buddhism, or Judaism, or Native American religious practices  because we preserve those things is truly ridiculous."

American history and culture cannot just be swept away, Baxter said, and religion inevitably finds its way into public life "and we shouldn't be afraid of supporting that and preserving that rich part of our history."

Across the country, many courts hear cases that involve war memorials with possible religious components. Baxter is currently defending the Knights of Columbus against a lawsuit filed in Montana to remove a statue of Jesus placed near a ski slope 60 years ago by veterans of the 10th Army Mountain Division.

Since the Jesus statue is located on National Park Service land, the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Wisconsin came to Montana and sued - after spending six months looking for a state resident who would join in the lawsuit.

"Now there's a huge controversy," Baxter said. "Ninety-nine percent of the community want (the Jesus statue) there. Religious or not, it's part of the community, it's a symbol."

One war monument in humanist crosshairs, according to Baxter, is the Bladensburg Peace Cross, emblazoned with the logo of The American Legion and erected in 1925.

Local citizens of Prince George's County, Md., wanted to put up a monument to citizens of the county who had died in World War I. People who donated to the project made the following pledge:

"We the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the supreme ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers, who gave their all in the World War to make the world safe for democracy. Their mortal bodies have turned to dust but their spirit lives to guide us through life in the way of godliness, justice and liberty. With our motto, ‘One God, one country, and one flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross, commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain."

The pledge was hardly a statement of anyone wanting to impose a particular religious view, Baxter said. "Anyone can read that and respect the concept of people who have died for our country, and the gratitude to God that most Americans feel for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country."

What is to be done in these cases where war monuments and memorials are banned by courts that decide church-and-state separation has been violated?

"There's no easy answer," Baxter said. "The Supreme Court, in particular, has just messed up this doctrine so severely. It's a complicated history that we're going through, but there are some important principles that we can turn to decide these controversial cases." One principle is the fact that America is a pluralistic society "and we can live and work together, despite our religious beliefs."

Baxter said it is important for organizations such as The American Legion to remain active and informed on the issue, because cases like the Bladensburg Peace Cross "are happening all over the country, and wherever you are, you can be involved and aware....

"If you think about our founding, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, all of these things were inspired - at least in some part - by religious belief. And our laws and our textbooks, our culture should reflect history accurately."

It is also important for The American Legion to remain involved in the litigation of war monument/memorial cases. "The willingness of organizations like yours to jump into these cases and provide another voice can be important."

The Legion plans to file a "friend of the court" amicus brief for the defendants in the Bladensburg Peace Cross lawsuit; it has filed amicus briefs in similar cases, such as the one involving the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial near San Diego.

At its 2012 national convention in Indianapolis, the Legion passed Resolution 281, which seeks to prohibit the awarding of attorneys fees in lawsuits brought under the Constitution's Establishment Clause.

In its resolution, the Legion noted that courts have awarded millions of dollars in attorneys fees for such cases, which must be paid for by taxpayers. The threat of paying such fees, the resolution stated, "is being used as a club to compel local elected bodies... to surrender to demands to remove or destroy symbols or expressions of a religious aspect from all areas of the public sphere... and is being used to chill private citizens from exercising the First Amendment right to seek redress... for fear that damages or attorneys fees will be imposed on them personally."

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Dave Frens (dbfrens

March 31, 2014 - 8:42pm

I am not aware of this privacy policy.

Mickey Gato

March 31, 2014 - 11:57am

The Forefathers at the Constitutional Convention were well aware of the problem of the establishment of a religion. They fully comprehended that an established religion is one in which the state would pay all the costs of the religion to include construction of facilities, operational costs salaries, etc. Obviously,establishment of a religion is not what they desired. Two hundred years later to complain about the existence of a religious symbol on public property or to complain that a reference to God in a civil proceeding is a violation of the doctrine of "Separation of Church and State" is fallacious at best.

tony nostadt, florida

March 28, 2014 - 9:50am

this country was founded on a Christian belief every government building as some type words inscribed with god all of our money is inscribed with in god we trust also the flag so many died yet people cane do anything to the flag its ok

Amicus Militides

March 27, 2014 - 11:03pm

It seems to me that the folks who paid for and erected these monuments didn't foresee a time they would be challenged as being unconstitutional. Even if it did occur to someone I see them as trying to invoke something they considered sacred (cross, Star-of-David, et al.) to honor the people who protected something else sacred (veterans and KIA's fighting for their freedom). I fail to see how placing a symbol on a monument paid for with private funds translates to Congress (or any other government body) promoting a particular religion. As much as anything I find it disgusting to propel a statement of remembrance and appreciation into a specious debate on the Establishment clause. Having said all that - I'm an atheist. That's a very unwelcome statement for an Army officer to make, but it's true. I'm not anti-religion. I have struggled, at times, as a Legion member with the motto "For God and Country", but I think of it in terms of members dedicating themselves to something sacred to them. My grandfather was a founding member of the American Legion, so this organization is something of great importance to me. Likewise, monuments; especially to war dead, are beyond reproach. I was not going to comment on this story. I'm typically told to keep my mouth shut about being an atheist around military folks, and certainly while in uniform. Having read some comments that apparently assume all atheists support the "Freedom from Religion" foundation I felt compelled to make some comment, however. I don't care for a legion member demonizing another on the basis of religious disagreement, any more than I'm willing to stand by and watch an organization attack an honorific that happens to mention a god or prophet; or contain a religious symbol. Any flame-mail directed at me I just consider as someone exercising their First Amendment rights. Please just consider that I've got 36 years in the Army (and still going) in a Combat Arms branch, and would never do anything to dishonor the memory of those who served before me and with me.

Norm Harpole

March 27, 2014 - 6:41pm

"Congress shall make no law respecting the ESTABLISHMENT of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." It would seem to me that a monument with a cross or star of David, etc. is the "free exercise thereof" Congress is establishing no religion in allowing the monuments. The wording of Article 1 says nothing about separation of church and state. That was only stated by Thomas Jefferson at a different time and under other circumstances. Does no one read the Constitution nor have a rememberance of history?

Randall Laraway

March 27, 2014 - 4:57pm

After all the sacrifices our Veterans have given, many with their very lives, how can we who are still alive not support keeping all these memorials to honor them? It would be to our national disgrace to "do away" with these time-honored monuments; they are a permanent reminder of who we as Americans. I humbly suggest that we never ever get rid of them as these markers of valor are a big part of our heritage that we must honor and respect for all generation yet to come. Truly we have been baptized in sweat, tears and blood to preserve our way of life. If we fail to live up to this...our beloved men and women have died in vain.

Frederick Miller

March 27, 2014 - 5:46pm

Mr. Laraway is correct; the contention that such memorials establish a state religion and are therefore unconstitutional is specious. Atheism is not even a religion, yet the courts seem to be hell-bent in establishing it as the official United States Religion. This is truly unconstitutional. These historic memorials were the product of the love and gratitude for the sacrifice of veterans in the times and ages in which the sacrifice was given. They should never be effaced or torn down. I served during 'Nam and am now the Imam of a mosque and am not in the least offended by such memorials. Every veteran should step forward to protect them from destruction. How many times did George Washington and Abraham Lincoln invoke God's name in their speeches and writings? Should we, to assuage the political correctness espoused by the atheists, consider these remarks offensive and expurgate them from the historical record of the United States? May the God of us all prohibit it, and may we stand united against it. May Allah bless Randall Laraway and all those who share his sentiments.

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