Sunday, August 22, 2010

Appeals Court: Utah Highway Memorial Crosses Suggest Discrimination against Non-Christians

By Kathleen Gilbert

SALT LAKE CITY, August 20, 2010 ( - A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of an atheist group that complained roadside crosses commemorating fallen state troopers amounted to state endorsement of the Christian religion.

According to a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion issued Wednesday, the 14 crosses erected would appear to "a reasonable observer" as an endorsement of the Christian religion, and would lead to "fear" that the group that erected the crosses would discriminate against non-Christians, both in highway patrols and the employment process.

The case against the crosses was launched by the non-profit group American Atheists.

The crosses, which the Utah Highway Patrol Association (UHPA) began erecting in 1998, are 12 feet high and emblazoned with a fallen trooper's name, rank, and badge number. The purpose of the memorials, according to the group, is to "stand as a lasting reminder" to colleagues and citizens that a trooper "gave his life in service to this state," to encourage safe driving, and to "honor the trooper and the sacrifice he and his family made for the state of Utah."

The cross symbol was chosen in order to "convey the simultaneous messages of death, honor, remembrance, gratitude, sacrifice, and safety." They were erected with the consent of each fallen trooper's family, none of which took advantage of the offer to erect a different symbol.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff defended the crosses as traditional and broadly-accepted symbols of death and remembrance. "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," Shurtleff told the Associated Press. "What else would you put up?"

The state attorneys general of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma issued amicus curiae briefs in Utah's defense.

But the 3-panel court rejected the defendants' argument that the crosses constituted constitutionally-protected private free speech. Although the Utah government had stated it "neither approves or disapproves" of the memorials, the Court said that because they were erected on public property, they should be considered in light of the constitutional prohibition against state endorsement of a religion. 

"We conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity," stated the Court opinion.

Because all the memorials are in the form of crosses, wrote the judges, "This may lead the reasonable observer to fear that Christians are likely to receive preferential treatment from the UHP - both in their hiring practices and, more generally, in the treatment that people may expect to receive on Utah's highways."

While defendants argued that fallen U.S. soldiers' graves are routinely marked with a cross, the Court responded that, because fallen Jewish soldiers are marked with the Star of David, "there is no evidence that [the cross] is widely accepted as a secular symbol."

Addressing the fact that crosses are frequently used by families to commemorate those who have died in automotive accidents, the Court argued that "the mere fact that the cross is a common symbol used in roadside memorials does not mean it is a secular symbol. There is no evidence that non-Christians have embraced the use of crosses as roadside memorials." In addition, they wrote, the "massive size" of the crosses "conveys a message of endorsement, proselytization, and aggrandizement of religion that is far different from the more humble spirit of small roadside crosses."

Utah attorney General Shurtleff has said he has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.


Governor Gary Herbert
email form
Utah State Capitol Complex
350 North State Street, Suite 200
PO Box 142220
Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-2220
Fax 801-538-1528

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