Pitzer alumna argues in front of Supreme Court in religious freedom case

Monica Miller PZ ’08 argued about the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state in front of the Supreme Court Feb. 27. (Courtesy of Monica Miller)

Since graduating from Pitzer College, Monica Miller PZ ’08 had served as lead counsel in more than 25 federal court cases. But she’d never argued in front of the Supreme Court before — until last week.

On Feb. 27, Miller gave oral arguments in front of the nation’s highest court about the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state on behalf of the American Humanist Association, a nonprofit that advances secular humanism — a philosophy of life affirming the ability of people to lead meaningful lives without a belief in God.

She’s representing a coalition of residents of Bladensburg, Maryland, who sued a bi-county state parks and planning commission over a 40-foot tall cross memorial on public land. The cross, a veterans memorial constructed by the American Legion, has cost taxpayers more than $200,000 to maintain, according to the Wall Street Journal.

AHA argues it’s a violation of constitutional requirements separating church and state.

“A colossal Latin cross dedicated by the government as a war memorial for ‘all veterans’ does nothing of the sort,” Miller wrote in an AHA newsletter. “Rather, the government’s Christian cross war memorial honors Christians to the exclusion of everyone else, sending a callous message that Jews, Muslims and humanists lack the ‘courage’ and ‘valor’ referred to in the inscriptions at the base of the edifice.”

In the four months leading up to the case, Miller said she responded to more than 40 briefs, went over AHA’s 4,000-page record and organized a mock court at Georgetown Law School. Miller said she only had three weeks to prepare for the oral argument.

“It was certainly intimidating, but I enjoyed the experience,” Miller said via email. “I was definitely the youngest to argue that day, and the only female, but I was confident in our arguments and tried to keep my composure, especially when [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg] started talking to me.”

AHA lost its lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in February 2014, but won an appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals after Miller presented oral arguments in December 2016. The case was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018 after the parks and planning commission, joined by the American Legion, petitioned for a writ of certiorari a request for the court’s review according to Miller.

Phil Zuckerman, a professor of humanist and secular studies at Pitzer, taught Miller during her college years. He helped her prepare for the case and has been in touch with Miller throughout her career.

“She has already [led] the fight to keep church and state separate, [led] the fight for animal rights and chimpanzee rights; she embodies the ethos of Pitzer College,” Zuckerman said. “Monica has fulfilled Pitzer’s mission 10 times over.”

After graduating from Pitzer, Miller earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 2009 and started working at AHA in 2012 after graduating from Vermont School of Law, according to her AHA biography.

“I was definitely the youngest to argue that day, and the only female, but I was confident in our arguments and tried to keep my composure, especially when [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg] started talking to me.” — Monica Miller PZ ’08

Miller has previously represented students as young as 6, federal inmates, Christians and atheists. She also serves as a part-time attorney at the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal-rights organization.

Miller said she expects the Supreme Court to reach a verdict over the summer.

“We think a majority wants to uphold the cross but I can’t think of a principled basis for [the Court] to do so,” Miller said.

This article last was updated March 7 at 8:16 p.m. to remove redundant information.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the cross cost $200,000 in taxpayer money to construct. The article has now been updated to reflect that the construction was privately funded, but upkeep has cost taxpayers $200,000. TSL regrets this error. 
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