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Christian crosses and other highway memorials

Overview

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About memorial markers:

Christian crosses and other home-made religious road side memorials are typically used to mark where a family member or friend was killed in a highway accident. They are sometimes called "descansos" -- Spanish for "resting place."

In 2004, there were 42,800 traffic fatalities in the U.S. There is no national data available on the number of roadside memorials in memory of the victims. However, the Maryland Department of Transportation estimates that markers are erected to mark 10% to 20% of fatal crashes.

Inspired by Roman Catholic traditions from Spain and Mexico, these markers were originally mainly found in the Southwest U.S. They have since spread across the country.

Memorials bring comfort to the family and friends of accident victims:

bulletAnthony Carter was killed in a two car accident on 2003-OCT-14, near Clearwater, FL. His mother, Teresa Carter-Lane, 44, came across the accident scene less than ten minutes later. Her husband installed the cross on the following day. She said: "I don't want to bother anybody, but that cross is there for us. No one else. When I go by it, it gives me peace."
bullet

Kim Granholm, a volunteer firefighter, was killed in a two car accident near Esko, MN, as he responded to a car fire on Interstate 35. His wife, Aliina Granholm, 30, is also a firefighter. She said: "That was a reminder for my daughters of where their father died. Every time we'd go by, my daughter would say, 'There's Daddy's cross'." In 2004, the state removed all roadside memorials. Kevin Gutkneckt, a spokesman for Minnesota's transportation department, said: "The bottom line is safety. We don't want things built on the roadsides that could cause a crash." The large cross, with flowers and two American flags, was relocated to Granholm's yard. She says that it is not the same. She said: "It was a reminder for everyone. Something happened here. Somebody gave a life here." 1

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Appropriateness:

There appears to be no consensus on the appropriateness of roadside memorials:

bulletSome view them as important memorials to a loved-one's memory.
bulletSome consider them unsightly.
bulletSome feel that they are a safety hazard because motorists are often distracted by them. Others suggest that memorials can reduce accidents by reminding people of the potential hazards of driving.
bulletSome believe markers with a religious symbol represent a violation of the wall of separation of church and state which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was implicit in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This generally prohibits governments from:
bulletPromoting one religion above another religion, or
bulletPromoting religion as superior to secularism, or
bulletPromoting secularism as superior to religion.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation has expressed concern about the safety hazard that memories create. However, her main concern is the religious nature of the memorials. She said:

"There's this tendency to litter our landscape with crosses without considering whether this is the best way to memorialize your loved one. We can all feel sorrow about a roadside accident, but do we have to be preached at every time we drive by?" 1

bulletSome feel that it is important for families to erect highway crosses -- or other religious symbols -- as memorials. It brings comfort to the survivors. They regard restrictions on religious content of the memorials to be a violation of the family's and friends' freedom of religious expression. Banning them is often viewed as disrespect for the country's culture and religious heritage.
bulletJennifer Clark and Majella Franzmann wrote:

"The roadside memorial may indicate dissatisfaction with the traditional mourning practices....The funeral and the cemetery are not enough anymore. [Grieving families also] do not want loved ones killed in road accidents to be the anonymous victims of an invisible killer. They want to personalize this issue." 5

bulletOthers find crosses offensive. Some Jews, Muslims, and Native Americans see them as reminders of past horrendous persecutions at the hands of Christians.
bulletThe mother of Andy Robinson (no relation to the author of this essay) noted that her son was murdered on a school bus on 2003-DEC-12. She writes: "I have yet to put up a memorial to him but i plan on planting wildflowers on the road side where he died." She might have something there: a beautiful, living, growing memorial that few if any would object to.

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Government policies:

Various states and cities have developed policies about these markers:

bulletCalifornia, North Carolina, and Oregon ban them outright.
bulletAlaska and West Virginia have state statutes which encourage memorials.
bulletTexas has allowed them at sites of fatal car accidents but only where alcohol was a factor. They now have a standard state-designed memorial.
bulletMontana allows the American Legion to erect crosses at the site of fatal accidents. This raises the question of whether the Legion checks first to make certain that the deceased was actually a Christian.
bulletFlorida attempted to remain within constitutional bounds by adopting a Red Cross symbol in 1997. This has since been replaced by a circular placard displaying the words "Drive Safely." 
bulletNorton, MA, requires roadside shrines to be removed by 30 days after the fatality.
bulletNevada held a series of public meetings in 2004 to discuss roadside memorials. The issue surfaced after highway officials ordered the removal of an 8-foot steel cross from U.S. Highway 50 near Carson City. It marked the location where the body of Krystal Steadman -- a young murder victim -- was discovered. The state had been threatened with a lawsuit if they allowed the cross to remain. Scott Magruder, spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Transportation said: "It became a huge emotional issue. And here we are, the big bad government, [caught] in between."
bulletVandalism of roadside memorials was a serious problem in Colorado. They adopted a standardized blue sign in 2004 with victim's name and the message: "Please drive safely." and the victim's name.

Stateline.org has a list of state policies concerning roadside memorials as they existed in mid-2003. However state and municipal government rules are in a continuous state of flux. We recommend that you check with your state or provincial transportation department if you wish to install a memorial. 2

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Resolving the constitutional problem of religious symbols:

If safety and procedural conflicts are overcome so that markers can be used at the roadside, there may be a way to allow the installation of memorials in the form of religious symbols without violating the separation of church and state. They might pass constitutional requirements if the state allowed symbols from any religion, as well as secular symbols, to be used. The new international Red Cross symbol in the form of a red diamond, could be adopted as a secular symbol. Christian crosses, Jewish stars of David, Wiccan pentacles or pentagrams, etc. could all be allowed. At first glance, this should satisfy the three church-state separation criteria listed above. However, not everyone would be willing to tolerate some religious symbols.

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Reference used:

  1. Deborah Sharp, "Battles over roadside shrines more common," USA TODAY, 20050JUL-11, at: http://www.usatoday.com/
  2. Safety Concerns Fail To Curb Roadside Memorials,"
  3. Jennifer Clark and Majella Franzmann, article in RoadWise, the journal of the Australian College of Road Safety, 2002-JAN.
  4. Ted Shaffrey, "Are highway memorials treasured remembrances or traffic hazards?" Dallas News, 2002-AUG-26, at: http://www.dallasnews.com/
  5. "Roadside Memorials & Descansos of South Texas," Everlife Memorials, at: http://www.everlifememorials.com/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JAN-30
Latest update: 2008-JAN-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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