By: Ann E. Marimow and Michael E. Ruane – washingtonpost.com – September 21, 2018
A flag covered a bronze tablet, and a Gold Star mother who had lost a son to the Great War stood ready.
Silhouetted against the sky of a 1925 July day at the gateway of a new public highway outside Washington was a 40-foot-tall monument of rose-colored granite and concrete shaped like a cross.
At a cue, the mother pulled away the flag at the monument’s base, revealing the names of 49 local men who had died a few years earlier during World War I, permanently and forever recalled at the Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Md.
The names are still there on the giant war memorial in a traffic circle, passed by thousands of commuters a day outside the nation’s capital. But the men’s stories have been all but lost to history. And the permanent and forever aspect of the cross-shaped memorial is in doubt, just as the United States marks the 100th anniversary of the closing months of World War I.
As soon as Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court could decide whether to step into a legal skirmish over the future of the memorial.
A federal appeals court ruling on a challenge brought by atheists has said the Peace Cross is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion and told a state commission that maintains the cross on public land to remove it, reshape or reassign its ownership.
Legal pushback against that ruling has come from state politicians of both parties and more than 100 members of Congress who say the war memorial on government land should stand untouched and unmodified, and that if it does not, other memorials with religious features, whether in Arlington National Cemetery or in small town squares, could face destruction.
Ninety-three years after the Peace Cross was dedicated, with a fife and drum corps leading a parade and a Maryland lawmaker saying the memorial would “keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause,” the legal fronts in the struggle over the memorial are being newly mapped.
Still resting in the background, behind those battle lines, are the 49 old warriors.
Who were they?
They were farmers from Southern Maryland, a prominent surgeon and medical school professor at Georgetown University, and a British-born, Medal of Honor recipient who was president of the Marine Corps baseball team.
Draft registration cards, census and burial records, and historical newspaper articles show that most were single men in their 20s.
But one was only 18 and enlisted in Maryland after he was told in Washington that he was too young to join. One was a man in his 50s, already wounded in battle and having no business being on the front lines.
They were killed in action overseas, mostly in France, or died of disease closer to home.
The religious affiliations of all 49 are not known. Six of the 17 men buried at Arlington have gravestones marked with a cross. Others are buried in small Episcopalian or Catholic cemeteries primarily in Maryland.
The relatives of one soldier, Maurice Snyder, were contacted in 1921 by the American Jewish Committee in New York, which thought the family was Jewish and sought to honor Maurice. Snyder’s father wrote back to say that the family was not Jewish, adding: “There was no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Truly they played the part of good Samaritans.”
To read more about the soldiers that are honored by this monument, click read more.