UPDATE 1-U.S. top court takes up religious dispute over Maryland cross
The justices agreed to hear two separate appeals of a lower court's ruling that the memorial violated the Constitution's First Amendment prohibition on the government favoring one religion, saying the memorial - dubbed the "peace cross" - is inherently religious due to its shape like a Christian cross.
The high court will take up appeals brought by a public agency called the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns the cross, and the American Legion, a private veterans organization that holds memorial events at the site. The legion is represented by the First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious rights group.
The 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross, located at a busy intersection just outside Washington, was completed in 1925 to honor 49 members of the U.S. armed forces from Maryland's Prince George's County who died in World War One.
The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2017 that the cross was unconstitutional.
"The monument here has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively tangles the government in religion," Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel that was split 2-1.
The court ruled in favor of the American Humanist Association, a group that calls itself "the leading progressive voice in America on behalf of humanists, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers," as well as three local residents. The challengers want the memorial to be removed or redesigned so it no longer is shaped like a cross.
The appeals court overturned a 2015 ruling by a judge in Maryland who had decided there was no constitutional violation.
Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery, according to lawyers for the commission and the American Legion. It is used solely as a war memorial and is known locally as the "peace cross," the lawyers said in court papers.
A ruling is due by the end of June. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
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