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Bladensburg Peace Cross Sparks Legal War

The Daily Record

BALTIMORE (AP) -- The quote from Woodrow Wilson on the Bladensburg Cross says, in part, "We fight for the things that we have always carried nearest to our hearts."

For a nonprofit advocacy group, that means suing to take down the 40-foot-tall World War I memorial -- not because of the message but because of the medium. Eighteen months after asking the monument's landlord to remove it, the American Humanist Association has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the cross violates the First Amendment. The AHA has made clear it does not object to memorializing soldiers, but rather the placement of a Christian symbol on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

"We are certainly recommending coming up with a monument inclusive of all religious groups," said Monica L. Miller, a lawyer with the AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

But John E. Moss, the town's administrator, said the monument is not championing any faith.

"The cross memorializes our veterans," he said. "It was never meant to be a religious icon."

The monument, also known as the Peace Cross, is lit up at night and located in a median between the busy interchange of Baltimore Avenue (U.S. 1) and Annapolis Road (Maryland 450) in Prince George's County. It was formally dedicated in 1925, and a plaque on the monument lists the names of 49 county residents who died in World War I.

From most perspectives, though, all a visitor can see is the cross. The plaque is not visible from a passing car or by a pedestrian standing across the road, and there are no sidewalks or crosswalks allowing pedestrian access to the monument, the lawsuit alleges.

"Even if approached on foot, the plaque has been obscured by bushes," the complaint says.

Smaller memorials for World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are located a few hundred feet away from the cross, according to the complaint.

The monument was initially owned by the state but was deeded in 1960 to the commission, a bi-county agency that administers regional parks in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The commission restored the monument and rededicated it in 1965.

Lawyers with the AHA wrote the commission a letter in 2012 requesting removal of the monument. The lawsuit was filed after a meeting between the two sides last year did not result in any changes to the site, according to Miller, the AHA lawyer. The plaintiffs are represented locally by Daniel P. Doty, a Baltimore solo practitioner.

A request for comment left with the commission's legal department was not returned.

In addition to the AHA, the lawsuit names as plaintiffs two local association members and a third man from Beltsville. All three men have had "unwelcome contact" with the monument, the lawsuit states.

Steven Lowe of Washington was "shocked" when he first saw the cross and is "upset" whenever he passes it, usually once a month, according to the complaint.

"He believes that the Bladensburg Cross associates a Christian religious symbol with the state and gives the impression that the state supports and approves of Christianity, as opposed to other religions, and that the state may even prefer Christians and Christianity over other religions," the complaint says. "As a non-Christian, Mr. Lowe is personally offended and feels excluded by this governmental message."

Both Moss and Miller said they believe this is the first time a lawsuit has been filed about the Bladensburg Cross.

Moss cited the memorial's "historic and patriotic" significance.

"There are community members that would be disturbed if the cross were removed," he said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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