Ask a Jewish war veteran what he thinks of the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to let a World War I war memorial in the shape of a cross stand, and he’ll give you the straight talk.
“It was fakakta,” said Joe Fridling, commander of Post 692 of the Jewish War Veterans of America, using the Yiddish word for ridiculous,
The Jewish War Veterans filed a friend of the court brief supporting the American Humanist Society, which bought the case against the American Legion and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The American Humanist Society argued that the memorial, in Bladensburg, Md., constituted an “establishment of religion” because it stands on public land and is maintained with pubic funds.
The JWV argued that the 44-foot-tall cross was inappropriate, in part, because “the religious potency of the cross is only heightened in the context of a war memorial. A war memorial is the means by which society commemorates those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”
Having a cross, the symbol of Christianity does “not commemorate or honor the sacrifice of Jewish soldiers who, with equal devotion, gave their lives to the country,” it wrote.
Seven of nine justices disagreed. The majority concluded that if a monument has existed long enough to take on some other meaning than a religious one, it does not violate the First Amendment separation of religion and state.
“For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home,” Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote for the majority. “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.”
That didn’t sit well with Sheldon Goldberg, adjutant of Rockville Post 692. “A cross is a cross,” he said. “As a Jew, I am against it on public land.”
Only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor voted against the cross.
“By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths and religion over nonreligion,” Ginsburg said.
The cross has been around for 94 years. Private groups erected the memorial in 1925 to honor 49 people who died in World War One. The site’s ownership eventually passed to the state of Maryland, which has maintained it with public funds.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) tweeted that the decision was “a great victory.”
“I was honored to help lead this fight on behalf of our veterans,” he said, “and I am proud that Marylanders and Americans will be able to visit the Peace Cross in Bladensburg for years to come.”
The ruling drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League.
“This decision unfortunately undermines well-established precedents safeguarding the separation of church and state,” the group’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a statement.
The Interfaith Alliance, led by president Rabbi Jack Moline, also condemned the decision.
“The Bladensburg Cross is neither truly representative of the diverse personal faith, philosophy or conscience of the local servicemembers for whom it was built to honor, nor do we see this ruling as honoring the powerful meaning of the Latin cross for devoted Christians,” Moline said in a statement.
Not all Jewish war veterans were against the Supreme Court’s decision. Walter Gold, senior vice commander of Post 692, said the cross doesn’t bother him.
“You can’t change history and that’s what a lot of people are trying to do today. I just say leave it where it is. It’s just a blip on the radar screen,” he said.
JTA News and Features contributed to this story