June 20 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Thursday that a large concrete cross in suburban Washington, D.C., that honors veterans of World War I does not violate the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state.
The vote overturns a 2017 decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that said the 40-foot cross must be reshaped or removed from the public land. The cross, privately funded by the American Legion and other groups, has stood on the land in Bladensburg, Md., since 1925. The Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission took over maintenance of the memorial in 1961.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Stephen Breyer, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined in dissent.
Alito acknowledged the cross is a "pre-eminent Christian symbol," but said its use in the context of honoring war dead has long had a secular meaning and does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"For nearly a century, the Bladensburg Cross has expressed the community's grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifice, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought," Alito wrote.
"Its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions."
Kavanaugh said while the decision allows the cross to stay on public land, it doesn't require its placement there.
"The Maryland legislature could enact new laws requiring removal of the cross or transfer of the land," he wrote. "The Maryland governor or other state or local executive officers may have the authority to do so under current Maryland law. ... Those alternative avenues of relief illustrate a fundamental feature of our constitutional structure: This court is not the only guardian of individual rights in America."
Ginsburg argued in her dissent the cross can't be separated from its religious meaning.
"As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content," she wrote. "The venue is surely associated with the state; the symbol and its meaning are just as surely associated exclusively with Christianity."