In a landmark decision handed down last week, the Supreme Court ruled that a 40-foot Christian cross located on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland does not violate the separation of church and state. The 7-2 Court was highly fractured in its ruling; five concurring opinions were written. Justice Alito, writing for the plurality, argued that the “Peace Cross” has come to symbolize much more than Christianity. It was erected in 1925 to honor fallen soldiers in World War I and thus Alito noted that it has become a “place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our nation.” Justices Gorsuch and Thomas—neither of whom joined the plurality—suggested that plaintiffs like the American Humanist Association (who brought suit against Maryland) shouldn’t even have the ability to bring these types of cases. Justice Thomas went as far to say that the Establishment Clause shouldn’t apply to states at all.
Somewhat relatedly, controversy over a large American flag is brewing in North Carolina. In Statesville, North Carolina, a 40 by 80 feet American flag flies high over Ganders RV, a recreational vehicle retailer. The flag is a major point of contention in the community as the city council recently voted to retain their local regulation limiting flag size to 25 by 40 feet. While some members of the community argue that the retailer has the right to fly the flag to express patriotism, others note that allowing such would be a capitulation to an entity breaking local laws.
In 2016, Gregory Johnson was arrested after burning an American flag outside of the Republican National Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio. This wasn’t the first time he had been arrested for doing so. Johnson had committed the same act in 1984 outside of the Republican National Convention held in Dallas, Texas. That incident led to the famous Supreme Court case, Texas v. Johnson, where the Court ruled Johnson’s arrest unconstitutional as the flag burning was activity protected under the First Amendment. Using his own case as precedent, Johnson brought suit against the city of Cleveland in 2016 and, this past week, the city agreed to a $225,000 settlement.
Los Angeles artist, Erik Brunetti, started a streetwear clothing brand entitled “Fuct” in 1990. When he attempted to register the brand name with the Patent and Trademark Office he was refused as the title was considered scandalous material. Brunetti subsequently brought suit and the Supreme Court ruled this week in his favor. Justice Kagan, writing for the Court, opined, “[t]he most fundamental principle of free speech law is that the government can’t penalize or disfavor or discriminate against expression based on the ideas or viewpoints it conveys.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Alito noted that Congress could choose to ban the registration of illicit trademarks by passing carefully-crafted legislation that prohibits vulgarities without violating freedom of expression.