U.S. Supreme Court rules for cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross-shaped war memorial standing on public land in Maryland does not represent an impermissible government endorsement of religion, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in a major decision testing the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The justices, in a 7-2 decision, overturned a lower court ruling that had declared the so-called Peace Cross in Bladensburg unconstitutional in a legal challenge mounted by the American Humanist Association, a group that advocates for secular governance. The concrete cross was erected in 1925 as a memorial to troops killed in World War One.

The challengers had argued that the cross violated the Constitution’s so-called Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

The American Humanist Association did not immediately comment on the ruling.

The fractured decision saw two of the court’s liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan, joining the five conservatives in parts of the majority. The ruling made it clear that such a monument in the shape of a Christian cross on public land was permissible but the justices seemed divided over whether other types of religious displays and symbols on government property would be allowed.

Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, wrote for the majority that although the cross is a religious symbol, “its use in the Bladensburg memorial has special significance” because it functions as a war memorial.

“For nearly a century, the Bladensburg cross has expressed the community’s grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifices, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought,” he added.

To tear the cross down now could be seen as an act of hostility against religion, Alito said.

Where the justices differ is on what kinds of other displays, including ones built more recently, would violate the Constitution.

“A newer memorial, erected under different circumstances, would not necessarily be permissible under this approach,” Breyer wrote in a concurring opinion.

Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

The Peace Cross was funded privately and built to honor 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One. The property was in private hands when the cross was erected, but is now on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental agency.

The cross had the backing of Republican President Donald Trump’s administration. The American Legion holds memorial events at the site. Veterans and their relatives have said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and hurtful.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

Thousands gather for Anzac Day in Australia, New Zealand amid heightened security

General view at the Anzac Day dawn service at Elephant Rock, Currumbin Beach on the Gold Coast, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Dave Hunt/via REUTERS

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Tens of thousands gathered in Australia and New Zealand at Anzac Day memorials on Thursday amid heightened security following the shooting massacre at Christchurch mosques and deadly suicide bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.

A Sri Lankan government minister says the bombings on Easter Sunday were retaliation for the Christchurch massacre on March 15, in which a lone gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques. New Zealand says it has no evidence of a link.

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

Turkish authorities arrested a suspected member of the Islamic State group they believe was planning to attack an Anzac Day commemoration at Gallipoli attended by hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders, Turkish police said on Wednesday.

The arrest didn’t deter some 1,100 Australians and New Zealanders who attended a dawn service at Anzac Cove in Turkey.

“I feel quite safe, I feel that if there is any concerns, that it would have been called off and they wouldn’t have put us at risk,” said Chris King, a nurse from New Zealand.

Anzac Day commemorates the bloody battle on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during World War One. On April 25, 1915, thousands of troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) were among a larger Allied force that landed on the narrow beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, an ill-fated campaign that would claim more than 130,000 lives.

While the Gallipoli campaign against the Turks failed, the landing date of April 25 has become a major day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand for their troops killed in all military conflicts.

Addressing thousands gathered for a dawn service at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that, in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, Anzac Day 2019 should be an even greater uniting force.

“Let us recommit to always remembering our shared humanity that there is more that unites us than divides us,” Ardern said.

“Our sense of independence is as strong as our sense of responsibility to each other and not just as nation states but as human beings. That is part of the Anzac legacy,” she said.

Heavily armed police surrounded the function area and snipers were positioned on rooftops during the ceremony.

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

Britain’s Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, paid tribute at the Auckland War Memorial alongside Ardern. He will travel to Christchurch later on Thursday to honor the 50 victims of the shooting.

Heightened security saw about 1,000 police deployed across New Zealand at hundreds of locations and security concerns meant Anzac Day events in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and elsewhere were scaled back.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed a dawn service in Townsville, Queensland, where he shared memories of his grandfather, who served in World War Two.

“Our heroes don’t just belong to the past, they live with us today,” Morrison said.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in WELLINGTON and Will Ziebell in MELBOURNE. Additional reporting by Kemal Aslan and Bulent Usta; Editing by Michael Perry)

In major religion case, U.S. top court weighs Maryland cross case

Advocates for the separation of church and state participate in a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of oral arguments over whether a concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One in Bladensburg, Maryland, is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday takes up one of the biggest cases of its current term when it weighs whether a cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The so-called Peace Cross, a 40-foot-tall (12 meters) concrete memorial to 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One, is situated on public land at a busy road intersection in Bladensburg just outside Washington.

Fred Edwords and two other plaintiffs filed a 2014 lawsuit challenging the cross as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

Edwords, who is retired, is a long-time member and previous employee of the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state.

Supporters of the group participated in a small rally in front of the court before the arguments, with some holding signs saying, “Protect the Constitution they fought for,” in reference to military veterans. Supporters of the cross, including members of the American Legion, a private veterans’ group, also gathered outside the building.

The cross was funded privately and built in 1925. The property where it stands was in private hands when it was erected, but it is now on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental agency.

The nine justices on the high court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, are due to hear a 70-minute oral argument, with a ruling due by the end of June.

The Establishment Clause’s scope is contested, so comments by the justices suggesting a willingness to allow greater government involvement in religious expression will be closely scrutinized.

The cross has the backing of President Donald Trump’s administration and members of the American Legion, who hold memorial events at the site. Veterans and their relatives have said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a Christian cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and hurtful.

Aside from its shape, the cross has no other religious themes or imagery.

The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, reversing a Maryland-based federal judge’s decision allowing the monument.

The Supreme Court will hear appeals by the park commission and the American Legion, which is represented by the conservative religious rights group First Liberty Institute.

The Supreme Court has sent mixed messages about parameters for government-approved religious expression, including in two rulings issued on the same day in 2005.

In one, it ruled that a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building depicting the biblical Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution. But in the other, it decided that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and schools were unlawful.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

A century on from WW1, 100 years of work remains to clear munitions

A diver from a bomb-disposal unit gies up the surface an unexploded shell recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 23, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Claudia Wyatt

VILOSNES-HARAUMONT, France (Reuters) – As the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One draws near next month, bomb disposal experts are still digging up munitions sunk in the killing fields of eastern France — and it could be another 100 years before they are done.

A deminer from a bomb-disposal unit moves an unexploded shell recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 23, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

A deminer from a bomb-disposal unit moves an unexploded shell recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 23, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

In Vilosnes-Haraumont, where the River Meuse snakes north and west from Verdun, the German army dumped thousands of artillery shells into the river’s slowly shifting waters after the battle of Mort Homme in 1916.

Last week a pair of scuba divers plunged into the chilly waters to tie ropes around dozens of shells buried in the river bed, before a crane dragged and carefully lifted a string of the rusted ordnance onto the grassy bank.

In one day’s work, more than five tonnes of unexploded shells were dredged from the river, an unusually large haul.

In a normal year, the Metz Demining Centre says it collects between 45 and 50 tonnes of ordnance, and it estimates there are at least 250 to 300 tonnes still buried in the nearby rivers and rolling hills of eastern France.

For Guy Momper, the bomb clearance specialist overseeing the clear-up, it is a painstaking but essential task to protect people from ammunition that could still explode and return the French landscape to the way it was before the war.

Unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River are seen on the bank at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River are seen on the bank at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

“We need to tidy up the land,” said Momper, who estimates it could take more than a century to clear all the munitions. “As a matter of principle, from the moment a shell is reported, we go out and collect it.”

ACCIDENTS

World War One was largely fought on French and Belgian soil. The bulk of the grinding conflict took place in trenches — sometimes only a few meters apart — dug into the soil along the borders of France, Germany and Belgium.

More than 10 million soldiers, including 1.4 million French, died in the conflict, which came to an end on Nov. 11, 1918, dramatically altering France’s demography and landscape.

The physical impact can still be seen, with the traces of old trench networks scarring the fields, and the ground pockmarked by the blast holes from exploded shells.

Deminers from a bomb-disposal unit place in boxes unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Deminers from a bomb-disposal unit place in boxes unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

While the munitions pulled from the River Meuse have little risk of exploding, Momper and his team want to make sure there are no accidents. Alongside the river, they stack dozens of shells in neat rows, ready to be packed and removed.

“There are regularly accidents involving people who fancy themselves as deminers but who go too far,” said Benoit, a deminer working with the Metz team. “Unfortunately that costs lives in the worst cases.”

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

World War One shells found in drought-hit Sea of Galilee

An Israeli police handout photograph shows what a police spokesperson says are World War One artillery shells discovered in the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias, Israel, made avaliable by Israeli police

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Receding waters in the drought-hit Sea of Galilee have uncovered five World War One artillery shells likely dumped by retreating Turkish troops a century ago, Israeli police said on Tuesday.

A swimmer at a resort on the southern edge of the biblical freshwater lake discovered the ordnance, and police demolition experts safely detonated the shells on Monday.

“It emerged that these were artillery shells from the World War One period which were apparently abandoned by the Turks when they lightened their load as they fled from the British army,” police spokesman Luba Samri said.

Turkish forces, which controlled Palestine as part of the Ottoman Empire, were defeated in battles in the Galilee in 1918. After World War One, Britain ruled Palestine under a mandate that expired in 1948, the year Israel declared independence.

Israel’s Water Authority says there has been a sharp reduction in annual rainfall in the Galilee region over the past two years.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)