FRQ #3: Cross in Public Place?

FRQ #3.

Perhaps you heard of that Supreme Court decision handed down last year, where citizens and an interest group challenged a government-run World War I memorial in the form of a cross, as a violation of the establishment clause. The memorial stands at a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland, and is the site of occasional ceremonies for veterans. To newcomers and passersby, the cross might scream “Christians Welcome.”

The Court looked deeply into the history of this memorial. Private citizens constructed it on private land. A government-run parks commission has since obtained it, maintains it, and it sits on what is now public land. Sacrificed soldiers’ names ARE embossed on it to commemorate their bravery and sacrifice.


Here’s the FRQ Style #3:

In Bladensburg, Maryland, private citizens constructed a World War I memorial in the form of a tall cross. Since 1961, a Maryland park and planning commission has owned and maintained the cross with public funds. The Latin cross sits at a busy 5-way intersection and is representative of the Christian religion. The memorial lists local war dead and has the words “valor, endurance, courage, and devotion” appearing at its base. The American Humanist Society and local residents sued to have the cross removed. The American Legion, which used to maintain the cross and still holds ceremonies before it, intervened and became a party to the suit to keep the memorial.

In American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the Supreme Court ruled that the cross can remain and remain in the park commission’s hands. The Court considered the intent and purpose of the cross, and though admitted its religious symbolism, pointed to its secular and historic purposes. For many, destroying or removing the cross by government order, would constitute government hostility toward their religion. The Court reminded that it answered the question of whether or not to remove an old monument, not the constitutionality of constructing one now.

(A) What is the common clause at issue in both American Legion v. American Humanist Association and Engel v. Vitale?

(B) Explain how the facts in both the American Legion and the Engle cases led to different holdings.

(C) Explain an action the American Humanist Society could take to further separate church and state in this case.


As with typical SCOTUS, Style #3 free-response questions, students should force themselves to provide a little more info, elaborate, or give an example. If they make themselves use connector terms, like “such as . . .,” or “for example . . .,” this will force an elaboration and provide one more concrete example to illustrate their point. Since comparisons are called for, a good “whereas . . .” or “Conversely in the Engel decision . . .” make excellent transitions.

Students should list relevant bodies of government atop or at the bottom of the page in their response booklet, then assure that they referenced these bodies in their FRQ response. They should make clear which government body is defining which policy, at which stage of the game. This example could includes the New York statute, the Engel precedence, the management and ownership of the Bladensburg cross, the plaintiffs’ brief/argument, the Court’s recent ruling. With so many relevant “things,” pronouns can often be confusing. Students should avoid pronouns, and refer to actual governing bodies, officeholders, and policies, even if repetitiously.

Know the state actor for the 15 Required Cases and try to identify the state actor in the comparison case. Wisconsin’s state legislature is the state actor in Wisconsin v. Yoder, as it was a state law mandating education. The Nixon administration is the actor in New York Times v. United States. Those are a little more obvious. What about in Gideon v. Wainwrights and Engel v. Vitale?  Have students list in their notes, maybe on SCOTUS case flashcards, “(Florida)” after “Wainwright,” as Louie Wainwright was the state director of Florida’s correctional facillitiees, who Gideon alleged imprisoned him wrongly. In Engel, Mr. Vitale was the president of the school board that carried out the state-sanctioned prayer. AP Government students could list Vitale’s title or simply “New York” as the state actor in this case. This will help the test-takers explain how government acted and how the government actor may or may not have violated thee Constitution.

In conveying this, it never hurts to explain that Supreme Court case names are labelled according to which party brought this case to the Supreme Court, not necessarily in the order listed initially. New York Times v. United States began as United States v. New York Times, as President Nixon’s attorney general sough to enjoin the Times from printing the Pentagon Papers. In Gideon’s unique appeals method, Wainwright was the target of Gideon’s habeas corpus complaint. In this more recent American Legion case, the ‘state actor’ really doesn’t appear. But the American Legion entered the case and is defending the government in continuing to govern the monument.

Of course, the more these students are exposed to the operation/function of the Supreme Court, the more they can smoothly craft these responses. Terms like “holding,” “opinion” should roll off their fingertips. Phrases like “In Roe, the Court said . . .”  and “In Gideon, a unanimous Court sided with the claimant . . .” Hopefully they can easily quote or cite the various “tests” or “standards” that the court has set, like the “clear-and-present danger” test in Schenck v. United States.


Here’s a basic list in which to grade the American Legion FRQ. There are certainly additional possible answers.

(A) Establishment Clause

(B) Comparison of Facts linked to court’s outcome

  • In the Engel case, the religious message was in schools, the cross in American Legion was in the public.
  • Children impressionable in Engel, broader society/adults are less influenced/not obligated to attend the cross/memorial.
  • The purpose of each—a ceremonial, ritualistic daily school prayer versus a standing religious symbol also dedicated to other memorial and historical value.

(C) Additional Step for American Humanist Society

  • Petition park commission to change policy
  • Work toward putting the cross into private citizens hands/funding/land
  • Petition to move cross
  • Campaign for those who will alter this policy
  • Seek to pass and ratify a constitutional amendment barring religious symbols in public places