Appeals Court Rules that Crosses Are Christian Symbols

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.

Yesterday, a district appeals court sided with the atheists in the case of American Atheists v. Duncan (you can read their decision here)

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.

  • Nakor

    To be honest, I can’t blame them for not realizing that it wasn’t appropriate to use crosses like that. It’s the standard thing to do in western culture, and unless you were actively considering the constitution at the time, it would probably never occur to you.

    I do wonder what symbol they will replace them with. I think that these sorts of road-side memorials are important both for the families and to remind drivers to think of their own safety. My first thought was of a plaque, but one couldn’t read that at highway speeds. Any ideas guys?

  • http://yetanotheratheist.net Yet Another Atheist

    This is one of the many problems with Christianity being as pervasive as it is in American society. It’s such a widely-known symbol that it’s crossed over into the same realm as all bandages being called Band-Aids, or all tissues being called Kleenex. It’s become genericized.

  • Evan

    Lots of people (this particular example brought to you via http://www.autoblog.com/2010/08/19/cnn-federal-appeals-court-proclaims-memorial-crosses-on-highway/) don’t seem to understand why this is important.

    They feel like removing the crosses is somehow disrespectful to the officers. I have nothing against memorials for the fallen but I am adamantly against religious icons being endorsed by the state. It seems like permitting small things like this only serves to reinforce the bigger issues.

  • Gauldar

    I never thought of it till now myself. It’s an easy to craft cross marker of someone who had died on a particular spot, but it is a form of religious conformity while excluding any other. There’s the standard tombstone style, not sure if there are issues that come into play with durability, maintenance and resisting the elements though.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Well this was just depressing. The appeals court is right of course, and the American Atheists are doing a good thing by pushing the case… but as Nakor points out, the cops putting up the crosses probably weren’t thinking of it that way at all, or even intending to promote Christianity (though of course that was an unavoidable and impermissible side effect, even if unintended). It was their way of mourning… and it’s sad that their mourning got turned into a court battle.

  • Revyloution

    Roads don’t need to look like graveyards. Have a memorial at the police station, or a nice wall with flowers at a city park.

    What I don’t understand is why a cross is a religious symbol when it’s on the roadside to memorialize police, but it isn’t a religious symbol when placed on a mountain top to memorialize fallen soldiers. I think the Supreme Court really messed up on that decision.

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    @Revyloution,
    “I think the Supreme Court really messed up on that decision.”

    I think Justice Scalia will use the same thinking this time that he used last time, I’m afraid.

  • Simon

    Maybe I’m taking this too far, but what about Arlington? Are they going to fight that, Or isn’t that government property?

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    i come from a family of law enforcement/security people (judges, military officers, etc) and i have to say, i’m so very tired of Cop Worship in this country right now. that’s probably not a topic for this blog, but my gawd. yes, it’s hard to be a cop, and sometimes they get killed in the line of duty. you know what else? it’s hard to be a public defender, or a person in jail because of ridiculous drug laws. ever been in prison? people get killed there all the time, raped and beaten and abused (by cops, even) even tho their “crime” may have only been holding a bag of pot at the wrong time/place, and i don’t see the state or anyone else rushing off to erect monuments to their pointless deaths.

    and yes: a publicly funded roadside is NOT the place for a graveyard. i really hate all the little crosses (and never any stars of david, or islamic crescents, i note) that litter our freeways today.

    you know what’s funny about “the fallen?” they don’t know, care or benefit from memorials. because they’re DEAD. wormfood. not aware. not in heaven looking down. if someone is really sad and upset that someone they loved died, i understand. but keep the memorials to the proper grave sites, and leave the rest of us in peace free from your own private (or state sponsored) grief.

  • Roxane

    I’ve seen roadside memorials done with floral wreaths. I don’t think there would be any objection to that.

  • CatBallou

    When I see a little roadside cross, sometimes with flowers and balloons, I somehow assume that it marks an unsafe place in the road, although often the death is more related to alcohol than road conditions. And I know those markers aren’t permanent—that they represent fresh grief—and someday they’ll disappear.
    I couldn’t tell from the original article just where the crosses for fallen officers were being erected; presumably, not all of the deaths happen on the road. But regardless of what symbol is used, it’s still an odd precedent, to say the least. What if a memorial were erected at the spot where every police or highway patrol officer died? Every firefighter? These would be more-or-less permanent markers, and sadly, the proliferation would soon become unsupportable.
    But I digress from the original issue, which was the use of crosses. I immediately thought of Scalia’s Bizarro-world understanding, or lack thereof, regarding the symbolism of a cross. That the spokesman for the Utah HP thought a cross represents “peace” is just as baffling.

  • talynkotr

    I would like to see a study done on how many accidents these things cause because people are looking at the side of the road rather than the road they are traveling down at 70+ mph.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    And I know those markers aren’t permanent—that they represent fresh grief—and someday they’ll disappear.

    There are some in my town that have been there for ten years or more… including one that is replenished with new dried flowers every few months.

  • ecorona

    okay- i’ve just fallen through the rabbit hole again… in CA, the Mojave Cross case was decided with exactly the opposite reasoning: that crosses are not inherently religious symbols and may be used on public land as secular memorials…

    what planet am i living on!?

  • Steve

    Did they actually put the crosses at the places where these people died? It doesn’t look like it, but that’s the common way to do such memorials. A car accident happened and a cross is put at the location. And yeah, around here, they stay up for decades. Even with government sponsorship, that’s something I can support.

    But just randomly putting crosses next to a highway is indeed not the right way to go.

  • http://theobligatescientist.blogspot.com/ ObSciGuy (Paul)

    Now if they’d only tried to put a big

    ONE NATION UNDER GOD

    sign up they wouldn’t have these legal problems. ;)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Since the officers are being honoured for their service to the state, not for any religious act or inclination, the choice of cross is odd and inappropriate. How about a state flag, or a star modelled after whatever badge they carry?

  • Vas

    In Cali they put up a sign, green with white letters like any other freeway sign, they say something like, “CHP officer Joe Blow memorial freeway”, sometimes they have a CHP shield as well. I always assumed that the next mile or so of freeway was designated as a memorial to the fallen officer, (not necessarily the site of the officers death BTW). Seems simple enough to me and has the added bonus of identifying the officer by name… yeah you see the officers NAME not some religious symbol for some nameless fallen comrade.
    Like this…

    http://socalcops.org/linked/dedication.jpg

    Seems pretty to the point and no need for a cross.

    V
    (Note: The sign in the link is at an unveiling ceremony, it gets installed beside the freeway on posts like most informational signs such as exit names etc.)

  • Derek

    I’m 17 now, but this case began when I was still pretty young. I live in Utah, and I remember everybody saying how the atheists were all assholes for wanting the memorials removed, and at the time I agreed with them. I also realized that the atheists had a point, and when I thought about it more, I decided that their position made sense, but I still didn’t like it at the time. This case was what originally made me really think about atheism and religion for the first time, which led me to become the atheist that I am today.

  • Flah the Heretic Methodist

    May not be a popular opinion, but I find roadside memorials to be tacky and distracting. I appreciate the opportunity to remember someone lost, but to me, and I’m speaking for only me, it’s intrusive.

  • flatlander100

    Nakor:

    How about a star? It’s been a symbol of law enforcement, particularly in the west, for a very long time.

  • Nicole

    Am I the only one who didn’t see a problem with the shape of these at all? I don’t think any roadside memorials are a good idea because they’re distracting but it’s never occurred to me to call them out for being a cross.

    I’m sure someone will say something about how’s it’s symptomatic of a larger pervasiveness of christianity etc. but seriously. I’m a little embarrassed about this whole situation.

  • Dylan

    I think it’d be fine if they didn’t have a bunch of fifteen foot crosses on the side of the road… thats just going overboard. Two foot or something I can understand.

  • Aaron

    Maybe I’m taking this too far, but what about Arlington? Are they going to fight that, Or isn’t that government property?

    The one’s at Arlington are specific to each soldier. There are crosses, stars or David, etc. So it is really the dead soldiers preference, not the preference of the government.

  • frank

    Hemant, are you seriously saying that if the government allowed the families of the dead cops to place 12 foot crosses on public land by the highway, that would be ok with you?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    @Frank — I think there needs to be a limit on any highway memorial — 12 feet tall is no doubt way too high — but that rule should apply to everyone.

  • raisedbybadgers

    It’s particularly odd that this case arose in majority-Mormon Utah. Last time I looked the Mormons, for theological reasons, did not display crosses on their religious buildings and even frowned on wearing them (maybe even prohibited it outright).

  • Steve

    The one’s at Arlington are specific to each soldier. There are crosses, stars or David, etc. So it is really the dead soldiers preference, not the preference of the government.

    Yep. Here are some pictures:
    http://media.mcclatchydc.com/smedia/2008/10/21/19/736-21web-MUSLIMSOLDIER-minor.standalone.prod_affiliate.91.jpg
    http://bycommonconsent.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/09_christian_jewish.jpg

  • llewelly

    ecorona August 19th, 2010 at 2:22 pm:

    okay- i’ve just fallen through the rabbit hole again… in CA, the Mojave Cross case was decided with exactly the opposite reasoning: that crosses are not inherently religious symbols and may be used on public land as secular memorials…
    what planet am i living on!?

    Don’t worry. If the Supreme Court grants cert, it will almost certainly reverse the 10th Circuit Court decision.

  • llewelly

    raisedbybadgers August 19th, 2010 at 5:56 pm:

    It’s particularly odd that this case arose in majority-Mormon Utah. Last time I looked the Mormons, for theological reasons, did not display crosses on their religious buildings and even frowned on wearing them (maybe even prohibited it outright).

    This is nearly correct. There is no LDS prohibition against wearing a cross, or against using one to honor the fallen, but Mormons are instructed to not venerate the cross; they believe Jesus suffered for the sins of mankind in the Garden of Gethsemane, not on the cross. Mormon churches are never built with crosses, never have crosses added to them, and if the church was purchased from a cross-using religion, all crosses are removed, hidden, or de-emphasized where they cannot be removed. In some cases regional laws restrict owners of historical buildings from making certain modifications, and thus there are a handful of Mormon churches which have visible crosses due to their former owners.

  • Curious Atheist

    It was their way of mourning… and it’s sad that their mourning got turned into a court battle.

    But we need to make those grieving people pay for their minor church-state violations. If we let that go we’ll have a slippery slope and the next thing you know people will start fishing without a license on public grounds!

    These are grave, grave injustices people! What’s more important? The sensitivities of bereaved people or the tyranny of making people see crosses on land arbitrary assigned as public land? The choice is obvious. To hell with grieving people.

    I would like to see a study done on how many accidents these things cause because people are looking at the side of the road rather than the road they are traveling down at 70+ mph.

    I’m actually more inclined to drive more carefully when I see that someone has died on the stretch of road I’m driving. And it’s not like I’m trying to read a sign. You see and know immediately what the roadside memorial means.

    I live in Utah, and I remember everybody saying how the atheists were all assholes for wanting the memorials removed

    Nothing brightens my day like knowing that asshole atheists make the rest of us look like lawsuit-happy Ebenezer Scrooges.

    No wonder atheists are reluctant to come out of the closet. Who wants to constantly remind people ‘Hey, I not one of those atheists!’

  • dgm

    we’ll have a slippery slope and the next thing you know people will start fishing without a license on public grounds!

    The choice is obvious. To hell with grieving people.

    Is this guy serious? What has s/he been smoking?

  • Flah the Heretic Methodist

    @Curious Atheist: so if I don’t put up a big display on public property, I’m not properly grieving? If a UU officer dies, can I put up a 10-foot question mark?

  • Kimberly

    Interestingly, Robert Kirby, who was half of the duo who “thought up the memorial crosses as a way of honoring fallen friends and co-workers,” is far more upset with the infighting on both sides of this issue than he is with the fact that atheists sued to have the crosses removed from public property. Kirby’s article, titled “Intolerance, not atheism, is dooming America,” was published about an hour ago in the Salt Lake Tribune.

  • http://www.banalleakge.com martymankins

    What’s funny about this is that the dominant religion in Utah doesn’t even use the cross in their worship.

    When i read this in the paper today (SLTrib) I thought the same thing you said above. If a family placed the cross, it’s all good. But this is government related. Seems this fight will go on until some people get that church and state don’t mix.

  • Lenoxus

    A marker which directly resembles and intentionally represents an object which was used, hundreds of thousands of times, to slowly yet efficiently torture people to death, for just about anything the Empire decided was a crime, then leave their bodies up on the thing, in that distinctive pose, as a vomit-inducing reminder to the populace not to put one toe out of line…

    It’s kind of inherently troubling, religious implications aside. (Even using a skull as the generic grave symbol would be less morbid. We all have one of those, and its eventual exposure isn’t necessarily the result of any sort of violence.)

    Oh, but Jeeeesus was one of those victims, so its a Noble Symbol of Perseverance.

    The question is… would he approve?

  • http://www.mothershandbook.net The Mother

    I will be the lone one out here. The cross is a symbol that predates Christianity for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.

    The problem is that Christians don’t seem to remember that.

    I have no problem with pagan symbology. When I see the crosses, I smile and think, “Gosh, it’s too bad they don’t understand…”

  • Dan W

    A good decison by the court. Of course, before the symbol of the cross came to be used by Christianity, it was a symbol of torture and death, so I’d say it’s an inappropriate symbol for honoring fallen officers if the court had ruled in the opposite direction.

  • Atom Jack

    Crosses are just not right. Stars with the requisite number of points (State Troopers, usually 7, this has to do with their rank in the law enforcement pecking order) are something that I would consider most appropriate. Notwithstanding that the star of david could be confused with the Sheriff’s badge.

  • muggle

    I’d frankly like to see all these crazy memorials done away with and people redevelop the ability to move on following a tragedy, for fuck’s sake, already.

    I understand the deceased’s loved one wanting something. But visit the grave. A seperate memorial. Put up their photograph in your home. Why this frantic need for everyone under kingdom come to share in your grief forever and ever? (God forbid said public grief should ever end.) Geeze, Louise.

    If it must be done, however, yes, do it without religious symbols. Oh, and who gives a flying fuck if the religious symbol is truly Christian or Pagan? I don’t care. A religous symbol is a religious symbol and shouldn’t be littering our highways.

    And, yes, dammit, all this out of control public grieving (because somehow private ain’t enough) is creating traffic hazards. I don’t remember where but I do remember some highway patrol removing crosses on that basis and the court upholding that.

    Kimberly, thanks for the article link! That was refreshing and surprising. I had to laugh at his comments re: Ellen Johnson too. I found her a shrew and she’s largely the reason I do not belong to American Atheists.

  • http://www.shadowmanor.com/blog/ Cobwebs

    @The Mother:

    The cross may predate Christianity, but that’s sort of beside the point, since it has been pretty thoroughly co-opted by Christians.

    It’s similar to the swastika: It was an Indian good-luck symbol long before the Nazis co-opted it, but I’m willing to bet that not one in a thousand westerners think of that when they see the symbol.

  • ButchKitties

    Memorializing people with crosses has always seemed incredibly morbid to me, since the cross is a torture/execution device. We don’t honor the dead by putting miniature guillotines or knee-splitters on the roadside. Using a Roman torture device isn’t any less creepy.

  • http://www.polymathisthegoal.wordpress.com Chris/blindside70

    The decision is fine and good, but I still feel like there are a hundred other places that we should be flexing our separation of church and state muscles…

  • Pingback: Center of Mass Podcast » Blog Archive » Episode 27 – August 22, 2010

  • http://n/a Bob Gambol

    An opposing View Point…

    The Mojave Cross Revisited

    After WWI many U.S. soldiers moved to the Californian desert to find physical and emotional healing. In 1934, they erected a Latin Cross to honor their fallen comrades, a symbol used around the world to memorialize those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

    The site for the memorial in the Mojave Desert Preserve was chosen because at a certain time of day, the sun casts a shadow on the rock resembling a WWI dough boy. The cross-shaped memorial stood for more than 75 years as a reminder that there were those who fought and died for our freedoms. But sadly today, the ACLU and a federal judge in California, want to tear it down. In fact, the judge had ordered the memorial covered from view while the case is on appeal.

    In April the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded it back to district court. Unfortunately, this might lead to a repeat of the same proceedings.

    Recently the memorial was stolen from the site. Several military service organizations and individuals had offered a reward of $25,000. It has been learned that a decorated veteran who wishes to remain anonymous has donated an additional $100,000 to bring the thieves who desecrated the site to justice. Anyone with information relating to the crime should call the National Park Service Tip (NPS) Line at: 1-760-252-6120. To learn more, go to Mojave Desert Veterans website at: http://www.DontTearMeDown.com/.

    Meanwhile, VFW and other area veteran groups have requested the President of the United States to use his authority to restore the memorial in its original form. This action was taken because the NPS and Department of Justice are refusing to do so.

    Bob Gambol, USMC (Retired)

  • DimondWoof

    @chicago dyke – I have to agree with you 100%. I know other cops grieve over fallen comrades, but why not keep that in their place of work or someplace equally appropriate. As you say, where are all the state-sponsored memorials for all the civilians who have fallen because they were protecting someone else (i.e. doing the cops job without the training or responsibility, but doing it anyway)? Cops know the risks when they volunteer for the job, so why do we praise them. To be honest, I have yet to meet a cop that actually upholds the “to protect and server” motto. Usually, in my experience, they are out to “bully and punish”, and then try to get out of taking responsibility for their actions.


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