American Legion v. American Humanist Assn.

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: First Amendment
  • Date Filed: June 20, 2019
  • Case #: 17-1717
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: ALITO, J., 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, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER, KAGAN, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II–A and II–D, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined. KAVANAUGH, J., filed a concurring opinion. KAGAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. GORSUCH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOTOMAYOR, J., joined.
  • Full Text Opinion

Under the Establishment Clause, the passage of time gives rise to a presumption of constitutionality for monuments, symbols, and practices, even where such monuments, symbols, or practices include symbolic references to faith.

An agency of Maryland purchased and maintained a cross-shaped World War I monument on public land. Respondents filed suit requesting removal or destruction of the cross, claiming that the presence and maintenance of the cross violated the Establishment Clause. The district court determined that the monument did not violate the Establishment Clause, but the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the government’s ownership and maintenance of the monument had the unconstitutional effect of endorsing Christianity. The Supreme Court disagreed, counseling against application of its Lemon test in favor of a presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices. Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Focusing on monuments, the Court reasoned that original purposes in creating a monument become difficult to identify over time and that purposes and messages associated with such monuments often multiply or change. The Court noted that when such monuments become imbedded with a particular meaning within a community, removal by the government may seem hostile to religion in a manner that would equally offend the Establishment Clause. For these reasons, the Court held Maryland’s ownership of the monument at issue constitutional, as the monument had developed a secular meaning over time. REVERSED AND REMANDED.  

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