Alexander Whitney grew up less than 10 miles from the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial in Prince George’s County, Md.
“As a kid, I saw the cross every day,” said Whitney, whose dad is a Vietnam War veteran and his grandfather served in World War II and Korea. “I knew what the importance of it was. It’s not a religious artifact. It’s a war memorial dedicated to the men of Prince George’s County who perished. That lineage of military service meant a lot to me. Those men’s names will never be forgotten as long as that cross stands.”
Whitney, American Legion district commander in Western Maryland and a member of Post 31 in Carroll, was among more than 50 American Legion Family members who peacefully showed their support for the memorial outside the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments on Feb. 27.
The American Legion, represented by First Liberty Institute and Jones Day, made its case to preserve the memorial. The Legion is seeking to overturn a Court of Appeals ruling that could lead to the bulldozing of the memorial.
In 1925, The American Legion and Gold Star Mothers erected the cross to preserve the memories of 49 local veterans who died during World War I. It stood peacefully for decades until the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed suit, claiming the cross-shaped memorial violated the First Amendment.
The Gold Star Mothers selected the cross shape to represent their sons’ resting place in Europe where they took their final breaths.
Among those whose name is on the memorial is Thomas Notley Fenwick, who contracted pneumonia while fighting in France and died Oct. 7, 1918. He was 22 years old.
Mary LaQay attended the court hearing in support of her uncle, Fenwick.
“My grandmother helped get that memorial put up,” LaQay said. “I am saddened to think that memorial could be taken away. When I pass that memorial I think of my uncle. I feel like it is a memorial to him.”
Gold Star Mothers representing those killed during the war on terror turned out to show their support.
“We are representing the 49 moms who cannot be here to keep the monument going and preserve the memories of our fallen heroes,” said Theresa Karlson of Howard County, Md. “My son is buried in Arlington (National Cemetery). Can you imagine them taking off all of the religious symbols off their headstones?”
As she stood outside the courthouse, Karlson clutched a framed photo of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Eugene “Geno” Mills, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. Her thoughts were with him as well as those whose names are enshrined on the memorial at the center of the court case.
“Why would they take it down after all these years?” Karlson asked. “It’s a memorial for our fallen heroes who represent our freedom.”
The AHA also had supporters outside the courthouse including Steven Lowe.
“It’s a big ass cross in the middle of the highway,” said Lowe, a plaintiff and AHA member. “It’s just an old cross. It’s like visual screaming. It’s odd to use the cross to honor our veterans.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision before July 1.
If the court rules that the memorial must be removed, it will mean more than a change in the landscape to Whitney.
“It would be a loss,” he said. “Why would we sacrifice those 49 men’s lives and not remember them anymore? Whether it is removed or relocated, it would not have the same significance as intended by the Gold Star Mothers who erected it.”
On the other hand, if the court rules for The American Legion, Maryland Legionnaires will continue the decades-long tradition of holding Veterans Day ceremonies at the site.
“I will be humbled to be there as a remembrance for those men who sacrificed their lives for us,” Whitney concluded.