February 27, 2019
On February 27, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Association et. al., also known as the Bladensburg Cross case. (See our amicus brief here and analysis from CFI General Counsel Nick Little.) That day, Jason Lemieux, a Marine Corps veteran and the Center for Inquiry’s Director of Government Affairs, stood on the steps of the court to deliver the following remarks.
The full text of Jason’s address is below the video.
For the defendants to force this cross on the people of Maryland is lazy and callous and divisive.
That cross doesn’t honor every fallen veteran. That cross leaves behind the fallen veterans who weren’t Christian, or who didn’t believe in God. It tells everyone who’s looking that the Christian veterans are the ones who matter, and the rest of us should just be grateful they did anything at all.
It’s time for veterans like me who are not Christian, who don’t believe in God, to stand up and say the American Legion does not represent veterans. It does not define patriotism. It can never do these things because it is a Christian Nationalist organization.
And that’s not just me talking. That’s the Legion’s founding documents. The preamble to the Legion’s constitutiontells us that our endeavors in this life are only worthy under the influence of “Almighty God.” It tells us that the Legion exists to spread Americanism because it has “blazed the world-wide trail for belief in God.” The American Legion was founded on proselytizing their religion under the banner of our constitutional republic.
And not just any religion. The Legion’s national chaplain has a message to his fellow chaplains on their website. He doesn’t even try to include all veterans or even all religious veterans. No, he celebrates “the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the form of a little innocent baby.” (And there’s a nod to “our Jewish brothers and sisters.”) There’s nothing about veterans who are Wiccan, or Buddhist, or Ahmadiyya, or Baha’i, or Hindu, or Shinto, or Muslim. These guys don’t even make room for all takes on Yahweh. We’re here today to honor veterans of all faiths and veterans of no faith at all. They don’t even embrace the “all faiths” part.
And that brings us back to the Bladensburg cross case today. The Legion’s argument to the court is that the cross is about history and tradition, not religion.
After everything I just told you about their Christian Nationalism, the American Legion is going to walk in that chamber and tell those justices that they’re fighting for a 40-foot cross because it’s a war memorial, and not a religious symbol. In the Marine Corps, we had a name for that. We called it an “integrity violation.”
The truth is that our ancestors treated atheists like me as second-class citizens, and the American Legion wants the Supreme Court to tell them that can keep doing it because it’s their tradition to lord their Christian superiority over the rest of us.
But we know better.
We know that our country and our society is beautiful but flawed, and that it gets better over time because people like us have the compassion, and the dedication, and the perseverance, and the integrity, and the courage to admit when we did something wrong. When our ancestors did something wrong. And we endeavor to make our country work for all Americans, including the Americans that were left behind in the past.
We can leave our country a better place than we found it. And we can show the evidence that we’re making it better, stronger, more welcoming to everyone with a stake in our country’s future. There’s nothing about our constitutional republic, or democracy, or freedom that we need to take on faith.
We make our country better by improving on our past.
And that’s really important because the Bladensburg monument contains a plaque. It contains a list of service members from Prince George’s County who were killed in World War I, and the list includes African Americans and white service members on an equal basis. Legion members are using that plaque as a weapon to suggest that moving on from their cross dishonors that symbol of equality. But we know that rather than use that plaque in bad faith to keep other veterans out, we should preserve the plaque and move it to a new memorial that remembers and honors all veterans. A monument that is more honorable.
The Legion wants us to think we can’t honor our fallen veterans without clinging to everything that was done in the past.
But we know that it dishonors veterans who defended our Constitution when we limit our freedoms because their freedoms were limited back then.
And just as we honor those who came before us, we honor future generations by improving our society, so that when they inherit our legacy they can look at our example and they can be inspired. We don’t buy for a second that what was good enough in 1919 has to be good enough for us today.
We strive for a more perfect union where freedom of religion is for everyone, including everyone who is not religious. Including atheists. Including everybody in this crowd and everybody who can’t make it and all of the people who don’t have the freedom or the opportunity to stand up for themselves.
So please keep speaking up for our freedom of and from religion. Never bow down to theocrats or religious supremacists or Christian Nationalists. Keep carrying on that legacy, lift up and honor all Americans regardless of what they believe. Thank you.