Friday, February 15, 2019

Winter SCOTUS in the Classroom Case: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association

We are excited to announce our winter SCOTUS in the Classroom case for the 2018–19 school year: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association. This case is also known as the “Peace Cross” or “Bladensburg Cross” case. It asks:

Does a local government’s display and maintenance of a 40-foot tall Latin cross on public property, established in memory of fallen World War I soldiers, violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause?

We encourage teachers to feature this case in class as it is being argued and decided at the Court!


In a busy traffic circle in Bladensburg, Maryland, stands a very large cross-shaped monument to 49 local soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. Motorists cannot avoid seeing the monument as they pass by it on the main road from Annapolis to Washington, DC. Some residents argue that spending taxpayer money on the lighting, maintenance, and renovation of this cross amounts to a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The state argues that the cross has stood for almost one hundred years and the fact that this is the first legal challenge proves that a “reasonable observer” understands its significance as a war monument.

This case presents many interesting questions, including: 

  • Does the cross shape of the monument make it religious despite another secular purpose?
  • Does a “reasonable observer” believe that Maryland is endorsing Christianity when they encounter the cross?
  • If the appeals court decision stands and the cross must be removed, what impact will that have on other cross-shaped monuments, like some in Arlington National Cemetery?

Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association has been consolidated with the case American Legion v. American Humanist Association. They will be argued together on February 27, 2019. Street Law will post case materials as they become available on the SCOTUS in the Classroom program page. Teachers and students are encouraged to hold moot courts of the case the same week that the Supreme Court hears arguments, which means students can follow discussion and analysis in the news and listen to or read a transcript of the actual oral arguments at the Court. You can find instructions and handouts for conducting a moot court at SCOTUS in the Classroom.

Image Caption: Photo by Cathy Ruffing