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HONESDALE, PA — A recent Supreme Court case bears some relation to Honesdale’s own cross controversy.
The property atop Irving Cliff—known as the Gibbons Memorial Park, in honor of the family that donated it—was deeded to the town in 1955 and features a star-and-cross structure that community members raised money to erect in the same year. The star is lit in celebration of the Christmas season and the cross for Easter. The display came under fire late last year when a letter from the Freedom From Religion Alliance informed former council president Sarah Canfield that it would take legal action if the star and cross were not taken down.
The town did not light the cross in celebration of Easter this year. Plans are afoot to potentially move the structure to private property.
The issue has substantially died down in local discussion—save for the “Honesdale Strong” stickers and private monuments still dotting town—but a similar case brought to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a cross in Prince George’s County, MD, offers an opportunity to take another look.
The American Humanist Association took the local American Legion in Bladensburg to task for a WWI memorial in the form of a cross on public property. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the cross is constitutional and not in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Justice Samuel Alito delivered the court’s opinion on the case, which begins by stating that “Retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones.” Alito wrote, representing the opinion of six other judges who agreed with the ruling, that the “added, secular meaning” justifies the cross’s presence.
How that decision will affect other, similar cases across the country is uncertain. Some legal scholars have interpreted the opinion to mean that existing religious symbols in towns are considered constitutional, while new ones may not be. Others say the Bladensburg cross ruling is specific to that memorial.
Rebecca Markert, legal director at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the Bladensburg case has no bearing on the way the organization views Honesdale’s cross.
It was common for crosses to commemorate soldiers who died in World War I, which was a determining factor in the Supreme Court’s decision. “The facts and circumstances of that case are different than those from the cross traditionally lit in Honesdale,” Markert said. “FFRF will continue to evaluate these displays on a case-by-case basis. It is also still unconstitutional for a government body to light a cross in celebration of Easter, a Christian holiday.”
Based on his understanding of the Honesdale case, legal scholar Garret Epps agrees.
“To understand the Bladensburg cross decision you have to understand that the court’s decision found something very specific about that cross… that it is a memorial to the WWI dead,” he said. Epps, who specializes in constitutional law and has tried cases similar to these before, added that the dual significance of the Bladensburg statue along with the passage of time made the case for the legion in Maryland. He did not see that dual significance in Honesdale’s structure. “A symbol that has only a religious meaning does not acquire a non-religious meaning simply by the passage of time.”
Honesdale’s star and cross have not publicly been stated to represent anything other than the holidays during which they’re lit, though locals have spoken at borough meetings to say that they don’t associate them with religion, but rather town heritage.
Michael McConnell is the director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, who has written on constitutional law and the separation of church. He said the Supreme Court case “makes clear that cities are not required to dismantle displays of longstanding just because they contain religious symbols.”
When asked if he thought if that also applied to Honesdale’s case, where the monument is purely religious, he said yes.