NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Nos. 17–1717 and 18–18
THE AMERICAN LEGION, et al., PETITIONERS
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION, et al.; and
MARYLAND-NATIONAL CAPITAL PARK AND PLANNING COMMISSION, PETITIONER
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION, et al.
on writs of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit
[June 20, 2019]
Justice Alito announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–B, II–C, III, and IV, and an opinion with respect to Parts II–A and II–D, in which The Chief Justice, Justice Breyer, and Justice Kavanaugh join.
Since 1925, the Bladensburg Peace Cross (Cross) has stood as a tribute to 49 area soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War. Eighty-nine years after the dedication of the Cross, respondents filed this lawsuit, claiming that they are offended by the sight of the memorial on public land and that its presence there and the expenditure of public funds to maintain it violate the Establishment Clause of the
First Amendment. To remedy this violation, they asked a federal court to order the relocation or demolition of the Cross or at least the removal of its arms. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed that the memorial is unconstitutional and remanded for a determination of the proper remedy. We now reverse.
Although the cross has long been a preeminent Christian symbol, its use in the Bladensburg memorial has a special significance. After the First World War, the picture of row after row of plain white crosses marking the overseas graves of soldiers who had lost their lives in that horrible conflict was emblazoned on the minds of Americans at home, and the adoption of the cross as the Bladensburg memorial must be viewed in that historical context. 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. It has become a prominent community landmark, and 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.” Van Orden
545 U.S. 677
, 704 (2005) (Breyer, J., concurring in judgment). And con- trary to respondents’ intimations, there is no evidence of discriminatory intent in the selection of the design of the memorial or the decision of a Maryland commission to maintain it. The Religion Clauses of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.
The cross came into widespread use as a symbol of Christianity by the fourth century,[1
] and it retains that meaning today. But there are many contexts in which the symbol has also taken on a secular meaning. Indeed, there are instances in which its message is now almost entirely secular.
A cross appears as part of many registered trademarks held by businesses and secular organizations, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Bayer Group, and some Johnson & Johnson products.[2
] Many of these marks relate to health care, and it is likely that the association of the cross with healing had a religious origin. But the current use of these marks is indisputably secular.
The familiar symbol of the Red Cross—a red cross on a white background—shows how the meaning of a symbol that was originally religious can be transformed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) selected that symbol in 1863 because it was thought to call to mind the flag of Switzerland, a country widely known for its neutrality.[3
] The Swiss flag consists of a white cross on a red background. In an effort to invoke the message associated with that flag, the ICRC copied its design with the colors inverted. Thus, the ICRC selected this symbol for an essentially secular reason, and the current secular message of the symbol is shown by its use today in nations with only tiny Christian populations.[4
] But the cross was originally chosen for the Swiss flag for religious reasons.[5
] So an image that began as an expression of faith was transformed.
The image used in the Bladensburg memorial—a plain Latin cross[6
]—also took on new meaning after World War I. “During and immediately after the war, the army marked soldiers’ graves with temporary wooden crosses or Stars of David”—a departure from the prior practice of marking graves in American military cemeteries with uniform rectangular slabs. G. Piehler, Remembering War the American Way 101 (1995); App. 1146. The vast majority of these grave markers consisted of crosses,[7
] and thus when Americans saw photographs of these cemeteries, what struck them were rows and rows of plain white crosses. As a result, the image of a simple white cross “developed into a ‘central symbol’ ” of the conflict. Ibid
. Contemporary literature, poetry, and art reflected this powerful imagery. See Brief for Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States et al. as Amici Curiae
10–16. Perhaps most famously, John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, began with these memorable lines:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.”
In Flanders Fields and Other Poems 3 (G. P. Putnam’s Sons ed. 1919). The poem was enormously popular. See P. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory 248–249 (1975). A 1921 New York Times
article quoted a description of McCrae’s composition as “ ‘the poem of the army’ ” and “ ‘of all those who understand the meaning of the great conflict.’ ”[8
] The image of “the crosses, row on row,” stuck in people’s minds, and even today for those who view World War I cemeteries in Europe, the image is arresting.[9
After the 1918 armistice, the War Department announced plans to replace the wooden crosses and Stars of David with uniform marble slabs like those previously used in American military cemeteries. App. 1146. But the public outcry against that proposal was swift and fierce. Many organizations, including the American War Mothers, a nonsectarian group founded in 1917, urged the Department to retain the design of the temporary markers. Id.
, at 1146–1147. When the American Battle Monuments Commission took over the project of designing the headstones, it responded to this public sentiment by opting to replace the wooden crosses and Stars of David with marble versions of those symbols. Id.
, at 1144. A Member of Congress likewise introduced a resolution noting that “these wooden symbols have, during and since the World War, been regarded as emblematic of the great sacrifices which that war entailed, have been so treated by poets and artists and have become peculiarly and inseparably associated in the thought of surviving relatives and comrades and of the Nation with these World War graves.” H. Res. 15, 68th Cong., 1 (1924), App. 1163–1164. This national debate and its outcome confirmed the cross’s widespread resonance as a symbol of sacrifice in the war.
Recognition of the cross’s symbolism extended to local communities across the country. In late 1918, residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland, formed a committee for the purpose of erecting a memorial for the county’s fallen soldiers. App. 988–989, 1014. Among the committee’s members were the mothers of 10 deceased soldiers. Id.,
at 989. The committee decided that the memorial should be a cross and hired sculptor and architect John Joseph Earley to design it. Although we do not know precisely why the committee chose the cross, it is unsurprising that the committee—and many others commemorating World War I[10
]—adopted a symbol so widely associated with that wrenching event.
After selecting the design, the committee turned to the task of financing the project. The committee held fundraising events in the community and invited donations, no matter the size, with a form that read:
“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.” Id
., at. 1251.
Many of those who responded were local residents who gave small amounts: Donations of 25 cents to 1 dollar were the most common. Id.
, at 1014. Local businesses and political leaders assisted in this effort. Id.,
at 1014, 1243. In writing to thank United States Senator John Walter Smith for his donation, committee treasurer Mrs. Martin Redman explained that “[t]he chief reason I feel as deeply in this matter [is that], my son, [Wm.] F. Redman, lost his life in France and because of that I feel that our memorial cross is, in a way, his grave stone.” Id.
, at 1244.
The Cross was to stand at the terminus of another World War I memorial—the National Defense Highway, which connects Washington to Annapolis. The community gathered for a joint groundbreaking ceremony for both memorials on September 28, 1919; the mother of the first Prince George’s County resident killed in France broke ground for the Cross. Id.
, at 910. By 1922, however, the committee had run out of funds, and progress on the Cross had stalled. The local post of the American Legion took over the project, and the monument was finished in 1925.
The completed monument is a 32-foot tall Latin cross that sits on a large pedestal. The American Legion’s emblem is displayed at its center, and the words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” and “Devotion” are inscribed at its base, one on each of the four faces. The pedestal also features a 9- by 2.5-foot bronze plaque explaining that the monument is “Dedicated to the heroes of Prince George’s County, Maryland who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world.” Id
., at 915 (capitalization omitted). The plaque lists the names of 49 local men, both Black and White, who died in the war. It identifies the dates of American involvement, and quotes President Woodrow Wilson’s request for a declaration of war: “The right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts. To such a task we dedicate our lives.” Ibid
At the dedication ceremony, a local Catholic priest offered an invocation. Id.,
at 217–218. United States Representative Stephen W. Gambrill delivered the keynote address, honoring the “ ‘men of Prince George’s County’ ” who “ ‘fought for the sacred right of all to live in peace and security.’ ” Id
., at 1372. He encouraged the commu- nity to look to the “ ‘token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary,’ ” to “ ‘keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.’ ” Ibid.
The ceremony closed with a benediction offered by a Baptist pastor.
Since its dedication, the Cross has served as the site of patriotic events honoring veterans, including gatherings on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. Like the dedication itself, these events have typically included an invocation, a keynote speaker, and a benediction. Id.
, at 182, 319–323. Over the years, memorials honoring the veterans of other conflicts have been added to the surrounding area, which is now known as Veterans Memorial Park. These include a World War II Honor Scroll; a Pearl Harbor memorial; a Korea-Vietnam veterans memorial; a September 11 garden; a War of 1812 memorial; and two recently added 38-foot-tall markers depicting British and American soldiers in the Battle of Bladensburg. Id.
, at 891–903, 1530. Because the Cross is located on a traffic island with limited space, the closest of these other monuments is about 200 feet away in a park across the road. Id.
, at 36, 44.
As the area around the Cross developed, the monument came to be at the center of a busy intersection. In 1961, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (Commission) acquired the Cross and the land on which it sits in order to preserve the monument and address traffic-safety concerns.[11
, at 420–421, 1384–1387. The American Legion reserved the right to continue using the memorial to host a variety of ceremonies, including events in memory of departed veterans. Id.
, at 1387. Over the next five decades, the Commission spent approximately $117,000 to maintain and preserve the monument. In 2008, it budgeted an additional $100,000 for renovations and repairs to the Cross.[12
In 2012, nearly 90 years after the Cross was dedicated and more than 50 years after the Commission acquired it, the American Humanist Association (AHA) lodged a complaint with the Commission. The complaint alleged that the Cross’s presence on public land and the Commission’s maintenance of the memorial violate the Establishment Clause of the
First Amendment. Id.,
at 1443–1451. The AHA, along with three residents of Washington, D. C., and Maryland, also sued the Commission in the District Court for the District of Maryland, making the same claim. The AHA sought declaratory and injunctive relief requiring “removal or demolition of the Cross, or removal of the arms from the Cross to form a non-religious slab or obelisk.” 874 F.3d 195, 202, n. 7 (CA4 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). The American Legion intervened to defend the Cross.
The District Court granted summary judgment for the Commission and the American Legion. The Cross, the District Court held, satisfies both the three-pronged test announced in Lemon
403 U.S. 602
and the analysis applied by Justice Breyer in upholding the Ten Commandments monument at issue in Van Orden
545 U.S. 677
. Under the Lemon
test, a court must ask whether a challenged government action (1) has a secular purpose; (2) has a “principal or primary effect” that “neither advances nor inhibits religion”; and (3) does not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion,” 403 U. S., at 612–613 (internal quotation marks omitted). Applying that test, the District Court determined that the Commission had secular purposes for acquiring and maintaining the Cross—namely, to commemorate World War I and to ensure traffic safety. The court also found that a reasonable observer aware of the Cross’s history, setting, and secular elements “would not view the Monument as having the effect of impermissibly endorsing religion.” 147 F. Supp. 3d 373, 387 (Md. 2015). Nor, according to the court, did the Commission’s maintenance of the memorial create the kind of “continued and repeated government involvement with religion” that would constitute an excessive entanglement. Ibid.
(internal quotation marks and emphasis omitted). Finally, in light of the factors that informed its analysis of Lemon
’s “effects” prong, the court concluded that the Cross is constitutional under Justice Breyer’s approach in Van Orden.
147 F. Supp. 3d, at 388–390.
A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. The majority relied primarily on the Lemon
test but also took cognizance of Justice Breyer’s Van Orden
concurrence. While recognizing that the Commission acted for a secular purpose, the court held that the Bladensburg Cross failed Lemon
’s “effects” prong because a reasonable observer would view the Commission’s ownership and maintenance of the monument as an endorsement of Christianity. The court emphasized the cross’s “inherent religious meaning” as the “ ‘preeminent symbol of Christianity.’ ” 874 F. 3d, at 206–207. Although conceding that the monument had several “secular elements,” the court asserted that they were “overshadow[ed]” by the Cross’s size and Christian connection—especially because the Cross’s location and condition would make it difficult for “passers-by” to “read” or otherwise “examine” the plaque and American Legion emblem. Id.,
at 209–210. The court rejected as “too simplistic” an argument dppefending the Cross’s constitutionality on the basis of its 90-year history, suggesting that “[p]erhaps the longer a violation persists, the greater the affront to those offended.” Id.,
at 208. In the alternative, the court concluded, the Commission had become excessively entangled with religion by keeping a display that “aggrandizes the Latin cross” and by spending more than de minimis
public funds to maintain it. Id.,
Chief Judge Gregory dissented in relevant part, contending that the majority misapplied the “effects” test by failing to give adequate consideration to the Cross’s “physical setting, history, and usage.” Id.,
at 218 (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part). He also disputed the majority’s excessive-entanglement analysis, noting that the Commission’s maintenance of the Cross was not the kind of “comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state surveillance” of religion that Lemon
was con-cerned to rule out. 874 F. 3d, at 221 (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Fourth Circuit denied rehearing en banc over dissents by Chief Judge Gregory, Judge Wilkinson, and Judge Niemeyer. 891 F.3d 117 (2018).
The Commission and the American Legion each petitioned for certiorari. We granted the petitions and consolidated them for argument. 586 U. S. ___ (2016).
The Establishment Clause of the
First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” While the concept of a formally established church is straightforward, pinning down the meaning of a “law respecting an establishment of religion” has proved to be a vexing problem. Prior to the Court’s decision in Everson
v. Board of Ed. of Ewing,
330 U.S. 1
(1947), the Establishment Clause was applied only to the Federal Government, and few cases involving this provision came before the Court. After Everson
recognized the incorporation of the Clause, however, the Court faced a steady stream of difficult and controversial Establishment Clause issues, ranging from Bible reading and prayer in the public schools, Engel
370 U.S. 421
(1962); School Dist. of Abington Township
374 U.S. 203
(1963), to Sunday closing laws, McGowan
366 U.S. 420
(1961), to state subsidies for church-related schools or the parents of students attending those schools, Board of Ed. of Central School Dist. No. 1
392 U.S. 236
(1968); Everson, supra.
After grappling with such cases for more than 20 years, Lemon
ambitiously attempted to distill from the Court’s existing case law a test that would bring order and predictability to Establishment Clause decisionmaking. That test, as noted, called on courts to examine the purposes and effects of a challenged government action, as well as any entanglement with religion that it might entail. Lemon
, 403 U. S., at 612–613. The Court later elaborated that the “effect[s]” of a challenged action should be assessed by asking whether a “reasonable observer” would conclude that the action constituted an “endorsement” of religion. County of Allegheny
v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter
492 U.S. 573
, 592 (1989); id.,
at 630 (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).
If the Lemon
Court thought that its test would provide a framework for all future Establishment Clause decisions, its expectation has not been met. In many cases, this Court has either expressly declined to apply the test or has simply ignored it. See Zobrest
v. Catalina Foothills School Dist.
509 U.S. 1
(1993); Board of Ed. of Kiryas Joel Village School Dist.
512 U.S. 687
v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va.
515 U.S. 819
(1995); Capitol Square Review and Advisory Bd.
515 U.S. 753
(1995); Good News Club
v. Milford Central School
533 U.S. 98
536 U.S. 639
544 U.S. 709
(2005); Van Orden
545 U.S. 677
; Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School
565 U.S. 171
(2012); Town of Greece
572 U.S. 565 (2014); Trump
, 585 U. S. ___ (2018).
This pattern is a testament to the Lemon
test’s shortcomings. As Establishment Clause cases involving a great array of laws and practices came to the Court, it became more and more apparent that the Lemon
test could not resolve them. It could not “explain the Establishment Clause’s tolerance, for example, of the prayers that open legislative meetings, . . . certain references to, and invocations of, the Deity in the public words of public officials; the public references to God on coins, decrees, and buildings; or the attention paid to the religious objectives of certain holidays, including Thanksgiving.” Van Orden
, at 699 (opinion of Breyer, J.). The test has been harshly criticized by Members of this Court,[13
] lamented by lower court judges,[14
] and questioned by a diverse roster of scholars.[15
For at least four reasons, the Lemon
test presents particularly daunting problems in cases, including the one now before us, that involve the use, for ceremonial, celebratory, or commemorative purposes, of words or symbols with religious associations.[16
] Together, these considera- tions counsel against efforts to evaluate such cases under Lemon
and toward application of a presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices.
, these cases often concern monuments, symbols, or practices that were first established long ago, and in such cases, identifying their original purpose or purposes may be especially difficult. In Salazar
559 U.S. 700
(2010), for example, we dealt with a cross that a small group of World War I veterans had put up at a remote spot in the Mojave Desert more than seven decades earlier. The record contained virtually no direct evidence regarding the specific motivations of these men. We knew that they had selected a plain white cross, and there was some evidence that the man who looked after the monument for many years—“a miner who had served as a medic and had thus presumably witnessed the carnage of the war firsthand”—was said not to have been “particularly religious.” Id
., at 724 (Alito, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).
Without better evidence about the purpose of the monument, different Justices drew different inferences. The plurality thought that this particular cross was meant “to commemorate American servicemen who had died in World War I” and was not intended “to promote a Christian message.” Id.,
at 715. The dissent, by contrast, “presume[d]” that the cross’s purpose “was a Christian one, at least in part, for the simple reason that those who erected the cross chose to commemorate American veterans in an explicitly Christian manner.” Id.,
at 752 (opinion of Stevens, J.). The truth is that 70 years after the fact, there was no way to be certain about the motivations of the men who were responsible for the creation of the monument. And this is often the case with old monuments, symbols, and practices. Yet it would be inappropriate for courts to compel their removal or termination based on supposition.
, as time goes by, the purposes associated with an established monument, symbol, or practice often multiply. Take the example of Ten Commandments monuments, the subject we addressed in Van Orden,
545 U.S. 677
, and McCreary County
v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky.
545 U.S. 844
(2005). For believing Jews and Christians, the Ten Commandments are the word of God handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai, but the image of the Ten Commandments has also been used to convey other meanings. They have historical significance as one of the foundations of our legal system, and for largely that reason, they are depicted in the marble frieze in our courtroom and in other prominent public buildings in our Nation’s capital. See Van Orden
, at 688–690. In Van Orden
, no Member of the Court thought that these depictions are unconstitutional. 545 U. S., at 688–690; id.
, at 701 (opinion of Breyer, J.); id.,
at 740 (Souter, J., dissenting).
Just as depictions of the Ten Commandments in these public buildings were intended to serve secular purposes, the litigation in Van Orden
showed that secular motivations played a part in the proliferation of Ten Commandments monuments in the 1950s. In 1946, Minnesota Judge E. J. Ruegemer proposed that the Ten Commandments be widely disseminated as a way of combating juvenile delinquency.[17
] With this prompting, the Fraternal Order of the Eagles began distributing paper copies of the Ten Commandments to churches, school groups, courts, and government offices. The Eagles, “while interested in the religious aspect of the Ten Commandments, sought to highlight the Commandments’ role in shaping civic morality.” Van Orden
, at 701 (opinion of Breyer, J.). At the same time, Cecil B. DeMille was filming The Ten Commandments.[18
] He learned of Judge Ruegemer’s campaign, and the two collaborated, deciding that the Commandments should be carved on stone tablets and that DeMille would make arrangements with the Eagles to help pay for them, thus simultaneously promoting his film and public awareness of the Decalogue. Not only did DeMille and Judge Ruegemer have different purposes, but the motivations of those who accepted the monuments and those responsible for maintaining them may also have differed. As we noted in Pleasant Grove City
555 U.S. 460
, 476 (2009), “the thoughts or sentiments expressed by a government entity that accepts and displays [a monument] may be quite different from those of either its creator or its donor.”
The existence of multiple purposes is not exclusive to longstanding monuments, symbols, or practices, but this phenomenon is more likely to occur in such cases. Even if the original purpose of a monument was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment. As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, a community may preserve such monuments, symbols, and practices for the sake of their historical significance or their place in a common cultural heritage. Cf. Schempp
, 374 U. S., at 264–265 (Brennan, J., concurring) (“[The] government may originally have decreed a Sunday day of rest for the impermissible purpose of supporting religion but abandoned that purpose and retained the laws for the permissible purpose of furthering overwhelmingly secular ends”).
just as the purpose for maintaining a monument, symbol, or practice may evolve, “[t]he ‘message’ conveyed . . . may change over time.” Summum
, 555 U. S., at 477. Consider, for example, the message of the Statue of Lib- erty, which began as a monument to the solidarity and friendship between France and the United States and only decades later came to be seen “as a beacon welcoming immigrants to a land of freedom.” Ibid.
With sufficient time, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices can become embedded features of a community’s landscape and identity. The community may come to value them without necessarily embracing their religious roots. The recent tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris provides a striking example. Although the French Republic rigorously enforces a secular public square,[19
] the cathedral remains a symbol of national importance to the religious and nonreligious alike. Notre Dame is fundamentally a place of worship and retains great religious importance, but its meaning has broadened. For many, it is inextricably linked with the very idea of Paris and France.[20
] Speaking to the nation shortly after the fire, President Macron said that Notre Dame “ ‘is our history, our literature, our imagination. The place where we survived epidemics, wars, liberation. It has been the epicenter of our lives.’ ”[21
In the same way, consider the many cities and towns across the United States that bear religious names. Religion undoubtedly motivated those who named Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Providence, Rhode Island; Corpus Christi, Texas; Nephi, Utah, and the countless other places in our country with names that are rooted in religion. Yet few would argue that this history requires that these names be erased from the map. Or take a motto like Arizona’s, “Ditat Deus
” (“God enriches”), which was adopted in 1864,[22
] or a flag like Maryland’s, which has included two crosses since 1904.[23
] Familiarity itself can become a reason for preservation.
, when time’s passage imbues a religiously expressive monument, symbol, or practice with this kind of familiarity and historical significance, removing it may no longer appear neutral, especially to the local community for which it has taken on particular meaning. A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion. Militantly secular regimes have carried out such projects in the past,[24
] and for those with a knowledge of history, the image of monuments being taken down will be evocative, disturbing, and divisive. Cf. Van Orden
, 545 U. S., at 704 (opinion of Breyer, J.) (“[D]isputes concerning the removal of longstanding depictions of the Ten Commandments from public buildings across the Nation . . . could thereby create the very kind of religiously based divisiveness that the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid”).
These four considerations show that retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones. The passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality.
The role of the cross in World War I memorials is il- lustrative of each of the four preceding considerations. Immediately following the war, “[c]ommunities across America built memorials to commemorate those who had served the nation in the struggle to make the world safe for democracy.” G. Piehler, The American Memory of War, App. 1124. Although not all of these communities included a cross in their memorials, the cross had become a symbol closely linked to the war. “[T]he First World War witnessed a dramatic change in . . . the symbols used to commemorate th[e] service” of the fallen soldiers. Id.
, at 1123. In the wake of the war, the United States adopted the cross as part of its military honors, establishing the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross in 1918 and 1919, respectively. See id.
, at 147–148. And as already noted, the fallen soldiers’ final resting places abroad were marked by white crosses or Stars of David. The solemn image of endless rows of white crosses became inextricably linked with and symbolic of the ultimate price paid by 116,000 soldiers. And this relationship between the cross and the war undoubtedly influenced the design of the many war memorials that sprang up across the Nation.
This is not to say that the cross’s association with the war was the sole or dominant motivation for the inclusion of the symbol in every World War I memorial that features it. But today, it is all but impossible to tell whether that was so. The passage of time means that testimony from those actually involved in the decisionmaking process is generally unavailable, and attempting to uncover their motivations invites rampant speculation. And no matter what the original purposes for the erection of a monument, a community may wish to preserve it for very different reasons, such as the historic preservation and traffic-safety concerns the Commission has pressed here.
In addition, the passage of time may have altered the area surrounding a monument in ways that change its meaning and provide new reasons for its preservation. Such changes are relevant here, since the Bladensburg Cross now sits at a busy traffic intersection, and numerous additional monuments are located nearby.
Even the AHA recognizes that there are instances in which a war memorial in the form of a cross is unobjectionable. The AHA is not offended by the sight of the Argonne Cross or the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice, both Latin crosses commemorating World War I that rest on public grounds in Arlington National Cemetery. The difference, according to the AHA, is that their location in a cemetery gives them a closer association with individual gravestones and interred soldiers. See Brief for Respondents 96; Tr. of Oral Arg. 52.
But a memorial’s placement in a cemetery is not necessary to create such a connection. The parents and other relatives of many of the war dead lacked the means to travel to Europe to visit their graves, and the bodies of approximately 4,400 American soldiers were either never found or never identified.[25
] Thus, for many grieving relatives and friends, memorials took the place of gravestones. Recall that the mother of one of the young men memorialized by the Bladensburg Cross thought of the memorial as, “in a way, his grave stone.” App. 1244. Whether in a cemetery or a city park, a World War I cross remains a memorial to the fallen.
Similar reasoning applies to other memorials and monuments honoring important figures in our Nation’s his- tory. When faith was important to the person whose life is commemorated, it is natural to include a symbolic reference to faith in the design of the memorial. For example, many memorials for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., make reference to his faith. Take the Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Memorial Park in Seattle, which contains a sculpture in three segments representing “both the Christian Trinity and the union of the family.”[26
] In Atlanta, the Ebenezer Baptist Church sits on the grounds of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. National Statuary Hall in the Capitol honors a variety of religious figures: for example, Mother Joseph Pariseau kneeling in prayer; Po’Pay, a Pueblo religious leader with symbols of the Pueblo religion; Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and Father Eusebio Kino with a crucifix around his neck and his hand raised in blessing.[27
] These monuments honor men and women who have played an important role in the history of our country, and where religious symbols are included in the monuments, their presence acknowledges the centrality of faith to those whose lives are commemorated.
Finally, as World War I monuments have endured through the years and become a familiar part of the physical and cultural landscape, requiring their removal would not be viewed by many as a neutral act. And an alteration like the one entertained by the Fourth Circuit—amputating the arms of the Cross, see 874 F. 3d, at 202, n. 7—would be seen by many as profoundly disrespectful. One member of the majority below viewed this objection as inconsistent with the claim that the Bladensburg Cross serves secular purposes, see 891 F. 3d, at 121 (Wynn, J., concurring in denial of en banc), but this argument misunderstands the complexity of monuments. A monument may express many purposes and convey many different messages, both secular and religious. Cf. Van Orden
, 545 U. S., at 690 (plurality opinion) (describing simultaneous religious and secular meaning of the Ten Commandments display). Thus,
a campaign to obliterate items with religious associations may evidence hostility to religion even if those religious associations are no longer in the forefront.
For example, few would say that the State of California is attempting to convey a religious message by retaining the names given to many of the State’s cities by their original Spanish settlers—San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Jose, San Francisco, etc. But it would be something else entirely if the State undertook to change all those names. Much the same is true about monuments to soldiers who sacrificed their lives for this country more than a century ago.
While the Lemon
Court ambitiously attempted to find a grand unified theory of the Establishment Clause, in later cases, we have taken a more modest approach that focuses on the particular issue at hand and looks to history for guidance. Our cases involving prayer before a legislative session are an example.
463 U.S. 783
(1983), the Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of beginning each session with a prayer by an official chaplain, and in so holding, the Court conspicuously ignored Lemon
and did not respond to Justice Brennan’s argument in dissent that the legislature’s practice could not satisfy the Lemon
., at 797–801. Instead, the Court found it highly persuasive that Congress for more than 200 years had opened its sessions with a prayer and that many state legislatures had followed suit. Id
., at 787–788. We took a similar approach more recently in Town of Greece
, 572 U. S., at 577.
We reached these results even though it was clear, as stressed by the Marsh
dissent, that prayer is by definition religious. See Marsh
, at 797–798 (opinion of Brennan, J.). As the Court put it in Town of Greece
must not be understood as permitting a practice that would amount to a constitutional violation if not for its historical foundation.” 572 U. S., at 576. “The case teaches instead that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted ‘by reference to historical practices and understandings’ ” and that the decision of the First Congress to “provid[e] for the appointment of chaplains only days after approving language for the
First Amendment demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.” Ibid.
The prevalence of this philosophy at the time of the founding is reflected in other prominent actions taken by the First Congress. It requested—and President Washington proclaimed—a national day of prayer, see 1 J. Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1897, p. 64 (1897) (President Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation), and it reenacted the Northwest Territory Ordinance, which provided that “[r]eligion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,”
52, n. (a
). President Washington echoed this sentiment in his Farewell Address, calling religion and morality “indispensable supports” to “political prosperity.” Farewell Address (1796), in 35 The Writings of George Washington 229 (J. Fitzpatrick ed. 1940). See also P. Hamburger, Separation of Church and State 66 (2002). The First Congress looked to these “supports” when it chose to begin its sessions with a prayer. This practice was designed to solemnize congressional meetings, unifying those in attendance as they pursued a common goal of good governance.
To achieve that purpose, legislative prayer needed to be inclusive rather than divisive, and that required a determined effort even in a society that was much more religiously homogeneous than ours today. Although the United States at the time was overwhelmingly Christian and Protestant,[28
] there was considerable friction between Protestant denominations. See M. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln 228 (2002). Thus, when an Episcopal clergyman was nominated as chaplain, some Congregationalist Members of Congress objected due to the “ ‘diversity of religious sentiments represented in Congress.’ ” D. Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress 74 (2000). Nevertheless, Samuel Adams, a staunch Congregationalist, spoke in favor of the motion: “ ‘I am no bigot. I can hear a prayer from a man of piety and virtue, who is at the same time a friend of his country.’ ” Ibid.
Others agreed and the chaplain was appointed.
Over time, the members of the clergy invited to offer prayers at the opening of a session grew more and more diverse. For example, an 1856 study of Senate and House Chaplains since 1789 tallied 22 Methodists, 20 Presbyterians, 19 Episcopalians, 13 Baptists, 4 Congregationalists, 2 Roman Catholics, and 3 that were characterized as “miscellaneous.”[29
] Four years later, Rabbi Morris Raphall became the first rabbi to open Congress.[30
] Since then, Congress has welcomed guest chaplains from a variety of faiths, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American religions.[31
In Town of Greece,
which concerned prayer before a town council meeting, there was disagreement about the inclusiveness of the town’s practice. Compare 572 U. S., at 585 (opinion of the Court) (“The town made reasonable efforts to identify all of the congregations located within its borders and represented that it would welcome a prayer by any minister or layman who wished to give one”), with id
., at 616 (Kagan, J., dissenting) (“Greece’s Board did nothing to recognize religious diversity”). But there was no disagreement that the Establishment Clause permits a nondiscriminatory practice of prayer at the beginning of a town council session. See ibid.
(“I believe that pluralism and inclusion [in legislative prayer] in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality”). Of course, the specific practice challenged in Town of Greece
lacked the very direct connection, via the First Congress, to the thinking of those who were responsible for framing the
First Amendment. But what mattered was that the town’s practice “fi[t] within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.” Id.,
at 577 (opinion of the Court).
The practice begun by the First Congress stands out as an example of respect and tolerance for differing views, an honest endeavor to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and a recognition of the important role that religion plays in the lives of many Americans. Where categories of monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstand- ing history follow in that tradition, they are likewise constitutional.
Applying these principles, we conclude that the Bladensburg Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause.
As we have explained, the Bladensburg Cross carries special significance in commemorating World War I. Due in large part to the image of the simple wooden crosses that originally marked the graves of American soldiers killed in the war, the cross became a symbol of their sacrifice, and the design of the Bladensburg Cross must be understood in light of that background. That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.
Not only did the Bladensburg Cross begin with this meaning, but with the passage of time, it has acquired historical importance. It reminds the people of Bladensburg and surrounding areas of the deeds of their predecessors and of the sacrifices they made in a war fought in the name of democracy. As long as it is retained in its original place and form, it speaks as well of the community that erected the monument nearly a century ago and has maintained it ever since. The memorial represents what the relatives, friends, and neighbors of the fallen soldiers felt at the time and how they chose to express their sentiments. And the monument has acquired additional layers of historical meaning in subsequent years. The Cross now stands among memorials to veterans of later wars. It has become part of the community.
The monument would not serve that role if its design had deliberately disrespected area soldiers who perished in World War I. More than 3,500 Jewish soldiers gave their lives for the United States in that conflict,[32
] and some have wondered whether the names of any Jewish soldiers from the area were deliberately left off the list on the memorial or whether the names of any Jewish soldiers were included on the Cross against the wishes of their families. There is no evidence that either thing was done, and we do know that one of the local American Legion leaders responsible for the Cross’s construction was a Jewish veteran. See App. 65, 205, 990.
The AHA’s brief strains to connect the Bladensburg Cross and even the American Legion with anti-Semitism and the Ku Klux Klan, see Brief for Respondents 5–7, but the AHA’s disparaging intimations have no evidentiary support. And when the events surrounding the erection of the Cross are viewed in historical context, a very different picture may perhaps be discerned. The monument was dedicated on July 12, 1925, during a period when the country was experiencing heightened racial and religious animosity. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan, which preached hatred of Blacks, Catholics, and Jews, was at its height.[33
] On August 8, 1925, just two weeks after the dedication of the Bladensburg Cross and less than 10 miles away, some 30,000 robed Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Nation’s Capital. But the Bladensburg Cross memorial included the names of both Black and White soldiers who had given their lives in the war; and despite the fact that Catholics and Baptists at that time were not exactly in the habit of participating together in ecumenical services, the ceremony dedicating the Cross began with an invocation by a Catholic priest and ended with a benediction by a Baptist pastor. App. 1559–1569, 1373. We can never know for certain what was in the minds of those responsible for the memorial, but in light of what we know about this ceremony, we can perhaps make out a picture of a community that, at least for the moment, was united by grief and patriotism and rose above the divisions of the day.
Finally, it is surely relevant that the monument commemorates the death of particular individuals. It is natural and appropriate for those seeking to honor the deceased to invoke the symbols that signify what death meant for those who are memorialized. In some circumstances, the exclusion of any such recognition would make a memorial incomplete. This well explains why Holocaust memorials invariably include Stars of David or other symbols of Judaism.[34
] It explains why a new memorial to Native American veterans in Washington, D. C., will portray a steel circle to represent “ ‘the hole in the sky where the creator lives.’ ”[35
] And this is why the memorial for soldiers from the Bladensburg community features the cross—the same symbol that marks the graves of so many of their comrades near the battlefields where they fell.
The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark. For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the
First Amendment. For all these reasons, the Cross does not offend the Constitution.
* * *
We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and remand the cases for further proceedings.
It is so ordered.