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Class closely followed Supreme Court’s ‘Peace Cross’ case

Barry McNamara
The Bladensburg World War I Memorial, more commonly referred to as the Peace Cross, is a World War I memorial, located in the three-way junction of Bladensburg Road, Baltimore Avenue and Annapolis Road in Bladensburg, Md.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – A Monmouth College class that studied a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court during its recent term now has its verdict.

In late June, the Supreme Court ruled on The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a case studied by political science professor Andre Audette’s “Civil Liberties” class.

“The Court ruled 7-2 that the cross monument (located in Maryland and known as the ‘Peace Cross’) is constitutional and should stay standing,” said Audette. “(Justice Samuel) Alito wrote the majority opinion and (Justice Ruth Bader) Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion, with a number of concurrences. The Court also suggested that it would not apply the Lemon test in this case and that it should move away from it for cases involving religious symbols, if not religious cases altogether.”

The Lemon test refers to the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman, in which the Court ruled against a state paying part of the salary of a parochial school teacher. It is used in determining whether a law has the effect of establishing religion.

“This continues a trend of shifting away from Lemon, although the Court did not come to a majority agreement on a new test to replace it with,” said Audette.

“I agree with the decision,” said one of Audette’s students, Matt Datlof ’22 of Las Vegas, Nev. “If the Court were to rule any differently, the decision would have been a hostile action toward religious freedom, thus limiting the scope of the free exercise clause.”

Datlof, who is considering attending law school after Monmouth, put himself into the justices’ shoes.

“If I had the opportunity to litigate this case myself, the most compelling argument I would have used is that the Lemon test does not achieve the purpose of the establishment clause and is counterintuitive to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”

Emma Hildebrand ’21 of Mendon, Ill., also agreed with the ruling, but with an important caveat.

“If every single piece of our history can be easily erased due to the offense of one, then we will not have any history at all,” she said.

However, she actually argued in her class brief for the Peace Cross to be removed.

“While I personally believe that the cross should be able to remain in place, I could not find enough legal precedent to support that opinion, so I had to argue against the cross.”

Audette said a major portion of the spring semester class was spent studying The American Legion v. American Humanist Association.

“As should be no surprise to my students, Justice (Clarence) Thomas continued his line of legal reasoning that the establishment clause applies only to the national government and not the states,” said Audette. “He also joined (Justice Neil) Gorsuch’s opinion that the defendants in the case did not have standing to sue merely because they were offended by the cross – a point that several of my students raised in class.”

Audette said the bottom line is that the Peace Cross and other existing monuments with religious symbols will likely remain standing.

“The Supreme Court has elucidated further how not to test establishment clause cases, but has not provided a clear path forward for how cases should be decided in the future,” he said. “This case just seems to further muddle the Court’s religion jurisprudence, leaving future cases up to the discretion of a later Court. All the more reason to keep studying it, in my opinion.”

Datlof appreciated the opportunity to dive deep into a legal argument.

“The ‘Civil Liberties’ class taught me how to consider all sides of an argument,” he said. “Polarization of thought, especially on college campuses, is an issue that many institutions face today and Professor Audette combats that problem by presenting all sides of an issue and allowing students to synthesize their own conclusions.”

Sometimes, those conclusions are very difficult to reach.

“In the political/legal discipline, there are no easy answers and each issue has it nuances that make that issue complex,” said Datlof. “This class taught me how to think in-depth and carefully consider all pertinent facts of any issue, making me a much more well-rounded thinker.”

Hildebrand said the skills she learned in the class will continue to benefit her.

“If you want to learn how to write well and stay organized, this class is perfect,” she said. “Writing 15-page case briefs helped me grow into a more strategic and skilled writer. Anyone interested in law school should take this class to learn basic legal terminology, case history and a little bit of legal writing.”