Years ago, there was a big problem with Utah Highway Patrol officers placing crosses to honor their colleagues who were killed on the job.
Memorials are all well and good, but the endorsement of Christianity is not. Crosses are one thing if placed there by a family but another thing when placed there by government officials.
American Atheists sued the state over this years ago. In 2008, the courts sided with the state, saying there was nothing wrong with the crosses.
American Atheists appealed the decision.
A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the 14 large crosses would be viewed by most passing motorists as “government’s endorsement of Christianity.”
“We hold that these memorials have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion,” concluded the Denver, Colorado-based court. The state of Utah and a private trooper association have the option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The mere fact that the cross is a common symbol used in roadside memorials does not mean it is a secular symbol,” said the panel. “The massive size of the crosses displayed on Utah’s rights-of-way and public property unmistakably conveys a message of endorsement, proselytization, and aggrandizement of religion that is far different from the more humble spirit of small roadside crosses.”
The state can take it to the Supreme Court, but for now, the atheists have won the case. They have no desire to replace the crosses with some symbol of atheism. They just feel there are better ways to honor the fallen comrades than with a reference to Jesus.
The American Humanist Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case and said this about the decision:
“This is an important victory in the continued fight for the separation of church and state,” said David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association. “Governmental endorsement of Christianity, even in the form of an officer’s memorial, isn’t appropriate on our public highways. There are other ways to honor fallen officers, and the court’s recognition of this certainly strengthens secular government.”
In the friend-of-the-court-brief, the AHA informed the court that “while government should honor law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, the government must do so in ways that do not promote religion.” The brief argued that even “assuming that these crosses were erected for the secular purpose of memorializing fallen UHP officers, the crosses nonetheless primarily convey the Christian message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”
The Anti-Defamation League was on our side, too, and responded positively:
With its decision, the Court of Appeals corrected this critical error. We are pleased that the court reaffirmed the common-sense notion that a cross is a religious symbol and found that, as a consequence, its display on public land with an official seal by the state of Utah was unconstitutional.
Of course, we are mindful that this case involves the placement of crosses along public highways by the Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private organization acting with the permission of the State of Utah, to memorialize officers who fell in the line of duty. We hope that a more fitting symbol can be found to honor their sacrifice.
This case never should have gone this far. The Utah Highway Patrol Association should have known better than to use a cross on their memorials and should’ve acquiesced and removed the symbols when they discovered the problem with them.