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Christian crosses and other highway memorials

Utah

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picture of a highway cross memorial Christian crosses and other home-made religious road side memorials are commonly used to mark where a family member or friend was killed in a highway accident. In the state of Utah there was a unique government policy: home-made memorials on state land were removed, and the government erected 12 foot high crosses similar to this image at locations where state troopers were killed in the line of duty. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the crosses bear the name and badge number of the deceased, the date of his/her death, and the Utah Highway Patrol's beehive symbol. [Utah is known as the beehive state.]

"The first cross was erected in 1998 on private property and 13 others were added later, most of them on public property. The memorials are privately funded and owned by the [Utah Highway Patrol Association] UHPA, while the state owns the public land on which some of them sit." 1

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A lawsuit to remove highway cross memorials:

On 2005-DEC-01, American Atheists (AA) initiated a lawsuit -- American Atheists, Inc. v. Duncan -- at the federal U.S. District Court for the District of Utah 6 to stop the Utah Highway Patrol and the Utah Department of Transportation from erecting large, 12 foot tall, metal Christian crosses on state property. The plaintiffs had no problems with the concept of roadside memorials. They just objected to them taking the form of a large Christian cross.

The plaintiffs ask that six existing crosses be removed. Their court affidavit states, in part:

"The crosses are intentionally erected by the [Utah Highway Patrol] Association in prominent places visible to the general public. They are visible to motorists using the adjacent roads and highways owned by the State of Utah...  Each cross was erected on real property owned and/or controlled by the State of Utah...The presence of the Utah Highway Patrol logo on the Latin crosses violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment and Article I, § 4 of the Utah Constitution." 2

The American Atheists' apparently are not troubled by the use of a marker of some type as a memorial to recognize the location where a state trooper died. They seem to be solely concerned that a religious symbol -- a Christian cross -- is used as the marker, and the attachment of the Utah Highway Patrol beehive logo on the crosses.

According to the AA newsletter:

"Ironically, the state Transportation Department has a specific regulation prohibiting the placement of religious symbols and shrines on or adjacent to any public highway. 3 It is also state policy to remove the illegal memorials. Citizens may place wildflowers along a road, however, get involved in the Adapt-A-Highway program, or sponsor a 'memorial sign' with a secular safety message like 'Drowsy Driving Kills'."

The four plaintiffs -- constitutional attorney Brian Barnard of the Utah Legal Clinic, and three members of American Atheists: Stephen Clark; Utah State Director Michael D. Rivers; and veteran First Amendment activist Richard Andrews -- have asked for $1.00 in damages "...plus attorney fees and court costs...". 3 They are also seeking a ruling that the use of crosses and the placement of the Utah Highway Patrol logo on the crosses is unconstitutional.

Some American Atheist officials commented on the lawsuit:

bullet Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists indicated that many future lawsuits will be filed in other states. She told reporters: "It's a growing problem across the country. We end up with these little Christian shrines everywhere."

bullet Mike Rivers, Utah State Director for American Atheists said that by permitting the crosses on public property:

"The state is giving the impression that government is endorsing religion....We know that religionists are going to scream about this lawsuit and claim it's an example of discrimination. But the government has no business promoting one religion over another, or religion in general."

Rivers indicated that the goal of the American Atheists lawsuit was not to stop the honoring of fallen troopers but rather Utah's blatant promotion of sectarian religion. He said:

"We feel the department of transportation, by allowing the Utah Highway Patrol Association to pick a religious symbol is unfair.  We think that it should be totally secular with no religious theme."

Rivers' comment is a reference to the wall of separation of church and state which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is implicit in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This generally prohibits federal, states and local governments, including public schools, from:

bullet Promoting one religion above another religion, or

bullet Promoting religion as superior to secularism, or

bullet Promoting secularism as superior to religion.

Co-plaintiff Brian Barnard wrote:

"The presence of the Latin crosses on government owned property with the Utah Highway Patrol logo prominently displayed thereon has the primary effect to advance religion, and conveys or attempts to convey the message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred. The reaction of the average receiver of the government communication or average observer of the government action is that of endorsement of religion and particularly of Christianity..."

Jeff Nigbur, a spokesperson for the Highway Patrol, told the Deseret Morning News that the cross symbol was selected "because it is the international sign of peace, and it has no religious significance in it." Some might ask how a 12 foot tall metal torture/execution stake can be considered a peace symbol. As the complaint indicates:

"The Latin cross is a very familiar and poignant religious symbol exclusive to Christianity.....The reaction of the average....observer of the government action is that of endorsement of religion and particularly of Christianity."

Many Jews, Native Americans and other groups who have been oppressed, discriminated against, and the victims of mass murder at various times by Christians might probably disagree that the cross is a peace symbol. Nigbur also pointed out that "a large number" of crosses have been placed on private property adjacent to public roads.

Barnard described Nigbur's claim as:

"less than honest....I don't think there is any question that troopers should be honored. They have given the ultimate sacrifice. But they can be honored in a way that doesn't emphasize religion."

David Tabish is planning to organize a public march in support of the crosses. He plans to picket the courthouse when the lawsuit is heard. He feels that the American Atheists' suit was just another example of creeping secularization. He said:

"We've taken God out of the schools, out of city council meetings and taken the Ten Commandments out of government. It's time we stand up and put God back in our country."

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Decisions by the federal District Court and 10th Circuit Court of Appeals:

After the lawsuit was filed, the Utah Legislature passed a curious resolution stating its opinion that white cross has no real theological significace. Rather, it:

“has become widely accepted as a symbol of a death, and not a religious symbol, when placed along a highway.”

In 2007, a federal district court ruled that the crosses were constitutional, since they simply sent a message about death. 4

The case was appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Amici curiae briefs filed with the court included those by: The Unitarian Universalist Association, the Union for Reformed Judaism, The Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Interfaith Alliance, the Hindu Foundation, the Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Humanist Association, Foundation for Moral Law, the American Legion, States of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the City of Santa Fe, the Utah Sheriff's Association, and 21 individuals.

A three judge panel of the Court -- all Republican appointees -- unanimously overturned the district court ruling on 2010-AUG. They ruled that the crosses constituted a state endorsement of Christianity. They wrote that the crosses:

"... may lead the reasonable observer to fear that Christians are likely to receive preferential treatment from the [Utah Highway Patrol] ... unlike Christmas, which has been widely embraced as a secular holiday ... there is no evidence in this case that the cross has been widely embraced by non-Christians as a secular symbol of death." 5

They also ruled that:

"The fact that the cross includes biographical information about the fallen trooper does not diminish the governmental message endorsing Christianity. This is especially true because a motorist driving by one of the memorial crosses at 55-plus miles per hour may not notice, and certainly would not focus on, the biographical information. The motorist, however, is bound to notice the preeminent symbol of Christianity and the UHP insignia, linking the state to that religious sign." 7

Mark Shurtleff, the Attorney General of Utah objected. In an AP interview he said:

"When someone driving sees that white cross, what goes through their mind? Someone died here, and not Jesus Christ. The context of the cross on the side of the road, means death. What else would you put up?"

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This topic continues in a separate essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Melinda Rogers, "Attorney: Supreme Court shouldn’t waste time on roadside crosses case," Salt Lake City Tribune, 2011-JUL-26, at: http://www.sltrib.com/
  2. "Atheists file suit to stop Utah Christian roadside memorials," AANews #1191, American Atheists, 2005-DEC-03.
  3. Utah Code Ann. § 72-7-102 & 104 (1953 as amended).
  4. Text of order issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit is at: http://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/
  5. Clifford M. Marks, "Tenth Circuit: Utah Highway Crosses Violate Establishment Clause," Wall Street Journal, 2010-AUG-19, at: http://blogs.wsj.com/
  6. Complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, at: http://www.atheists.org/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  7. "Supreme Court rejects Utah cross case," Christian Broadcasting Network, 2011-NOV-01, at: http://www.cbn.com/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JAN-30
Latest update: 2011-NOV-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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