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A controversial cross is headed to the Supreme Court. Here’s what you need to know

SALT LAKE CITY — A controversial cross will get its day in the Supreme Court.

Justices announced Friday that they will hear the case of the "Peace Cross," a cross-shaped memorial to World War I veterans. The 40-foot monument, which sits on public land, towers over a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland.

The key question in the case is whether the Constitution's establishment clause, which forbids the government from favoring one faith group over others, allows for public funds to go toward the upkeep of a Christian symbol.

The Peace Cross has cost Maryland around $117,000 so far, according to court documents. The lawsuit was filed in 2014 by the American Humanist Association and three non-Christian Maryland residents.

The cross' defenders, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the American Legion, argue the Peace Cross has a secular purpose: honoring lives lost during World War I. They don't deny that crosses are central to the Christian faith, but say cross-shaped memorials have nonreligious significance.

"The Peace Cross's dedications, its inscriptions, its context, and nearly a century of practice make abundantly clear that this monument was erected to serve — and, for 93 years, has served — as a secular commemoration of American servicemen who perished in WWI," attorneys for the commission wrote in their request for the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The cross' opponents, on the other hand, say it's impossible to separate the Peace Cross from its religious connotations.

"If you were approaching it in a motor vehicle, you wouldn't think, 'Oh, there's a cross-shaped memorial.' You'd think, 'There's a huge Christian cross,'" David Niose of the American Humanist Association told the Deseret News in August.

The Peace Cross survived this legal challenge at the district court level, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in October 2017.

"Even in the memorial context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ," the opinion explained.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and American Legion appealed to the Supreme Court with the support of a variety of religious freedom organizations, lawmakers and state governments, including the state of Utah. Without the Supreme Court's intervention, the Peace Cross stood to be destroyed or to lose its arms.

"If this monument is bulldozed to the ground, it's only a matter of time before the wrecking ball turns on Arlington National Cemetery and the thousands of memorials like this one across the country," said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty, the law firm representing the American Legion, in a statement released Friday celebrating the Supreme Court's announcement.

Monica Miller, lead counsel in the case for the American Humanist Association, said in a statement that her organization believes the high court will uphold the appellate court ruling.

"We remain confident in our legal position and look forward to presenting arguments to the Supreme Court," she said. "The Fourth Circuit's decision correctly recognized that the government's prominent Christian cross memorial unconstitutionally favors Christian veterans to the exclusion of all others."

The Supreme Court has ruled on a variety of religious symbols in recent years, but it's difficult to predict what will happen to the Peace Cross, experts said. The Supreme Court does not have a clear record on what types of displays violate the establishment clause.

"The Supreme Court hasn't yet been able to get five votes for a consistent, coherent legal standard for resolving these cases," Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, a religious liberty law firm, told the Deseret News in August.

The Peace Cross case could be the biggest religion-related case the Supreme Court hears this term. Justices have not yet decided if they'll weigh in on another controversial cross case in Pensacola, Florida.