Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Utah Cross Case; Atheists Are Victorious

Yesterday was a big day for American Atheists in court because they won a major court case. If you don’t know the details, here’s what you need to know to understand it:

This was always a risky lawsuit to file because, on the surface, it sounded like atheists were attacking fallen Highway Patrol Officers in Utah. Of course, the truth was far from that. The atheists had all the respect in the world for officers who died while on duty. But they felt it was inappropriate for a private group to put Christian crosses at roadside memorials, regardless of what the officers believed.

Especially when these were 12-foot-tall Christian Crosses.

Just to clarify some of the points lost in many news stories about this case, this was a private organization (Utah Highway Patrol Association) who put these 14 crosses on state land (11 times) and private property (3 times). On each cross was the beehive-shaped shield of the Utah Highway Patrol, a state entity.

The line had been crossed. This wasn’t just a private group putting up crosses. These were government-endorsed memorials.

What was the UHPA’s defense? This is what a spokesperson said five years ago:

According to Utah Highway Patrol spokesman Jeff Nigbur, “We chose the cross because the cross is the international sign of peace, and it has no religious significance in it.”

No religious significance. To a Cross. To this:

How could the group get away with that…?

American Atheists filed a lawsuit over this issue years ago. In 2008, the courts sided against them, saying the crosses were perfectly legal.

Wrong answer.

American Atheists appealed, and in 2010, the Courts ruled in AA’s favor. (Yay!)

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.

Makes perfect sense. If a random observer saw the crosses, how could Christianity not cross her mind? Moreover, if she were driving at the speed limit, she wouldn’t even see the biographical information written on the crosses — only the symbol itself.

The Appeals Court said that just because crosses are common symbols used in roadside memorials, it didn’t mean they were secular symbols. The government had no business endorsing Christianity with their use of the crosses.

The Utah state government requested an en banc review in which all the judges in that courthouse would have heard the case. They were rejected.

Their only recourse was to take the case to the Supreme Court. Which is exactly what they did.

As you may have heard by now, yesterday, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.

That means it’s over. The ruling stands. The cross is indeed a Christian symbol and putting it up on roadside memorials is an illegal government endorsement of Christianity:

Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists noted, “We have no problem with honoring fallen troopers: they should be honored. Erecting divisive religious icons that violate the very constitution the fallen troopers had sworn to uphold is not the way to honor those troopers who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the citizens of their state.”

“It is our hope,” added Mr. Silverman, “now that the appeals process is over and the courts have found the crosses unconstitutional that the State of Utah will find a more honorable and non-divisive way to honor their fallen troopers. The fallen troopers, their loved ones and the citizens they swore to protect deserve such recognition.”

That’s the perfect response. Honor the troops, but not the crosses put up by State officials because they’re unnecessary and illegal. The Christian Right groups fighting on the side of the Utah Highway Patrol Association — isn’t that a dead giveaway that these were Christian crosses? — is trying to accuse the atheists of being insensitive to the officers, when our side had only respect for them:

“Justice is not well served when unhappy atheists can use the law to mow down memorial crosses and renew the suffering for the survivors,” said [Alliance Defense Fund] Senior Counsel Byron Babione.

Justice Clarence Thomas wanted to hear the case (PDF). He felt that “this case would have been a good vehicle for a major review and revision of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.” In other words, he wanted a chance to rule on this case so he could say crosses were not Christian symbols, thus allowing them to go up everywhere. Thankfully, no other justices agreed with him — at least four justices need to agree to hear a case before it goes before the Court.

So now what?

Utah’s case will now go back to a federal judge in Salt Lake City for an order directing the state to take down the crosses. Brian Barnard, the Salt Lake City attorney representing the atheists, said that isn’t necessarily the only option. The crosses could be replaced with other monuments or moved to private land.

“We’ve said all along that these troopers should be honored, but let’s just do it in way that doesn’t violate the Constitution,” Barnard said. “If they want to put up a flag, an obelisk, a badge or some other symbol that is not religious in nature, they can do it and can leave them on public land. That would be fine, and it would comport with the 10th Circuit’s ruling and with the First Amendment.”

I don’t see any problem with a flag.

This was a risky case, but the atheists have handled themselves well. They made sure they constantly mentioned their respect for the officers. They stuck to the point about how the government shouldn’t be endorsing religion, and yesterday, they won the five-year-old argument.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • ACN

    Woot. Glad to hear the church-state separation side come out on top here.

  • Gerry

    This is a great story with a great outcome,  and it gives me hope that common sense can still prevail. Especially revealing was the side note that alone among the Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas wanted to hear it. The man is an empty suit and always has been.

    • Gerry

      Posted this to Facebook as well!

  • http://conuly.dreamwidth.org/ Uly

    What I really don’t get is why Christians aren’t all up in arms every time somebody says “Your sacred religious symbol is really meaningless. Christ? Nothing to do with it!”

    I mean, it just doesn’t make sense to me! You’d think they at least would consider their own symbols important!

    • http://twitter.com/WCLPeter Rob U

      They’re not up in arms about it because they know all the people are saying like, “The cross is totally not a Christina religious symbol nudge nudge, wink wink.”
      If they can get their specific religious symbol deemed secular in a legal sense then we secularists won’t have much of a leg to stand on with the Church/State separation cases when it comes to religious symbology endorsed by the State.  And even though the cross is well known as a symbol of Christianity all they’ll have to do is point at “so and so ruling” and scream from the rooftops, “The cross is in no way religious and the Supreme Court said so!  So nyah!”Of course if the ruling goes our way, which it did in this case, it will result in endless hypocritical tirades from the American Taliban about “activist judges legislating from the bench” and how “atheists are destroying America”.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Huzzah!  Finally a bit of sanity.
     
    But as to this:
    “If they want to put up a flag, an obelisk, a badge or some other symbol that is not religious in nature…”

    I think a flag or a badge would be great, but an obelisk?  The followers of Amun-Re might not agree about that one not being religious.

  • Erik

    To me, the biggest victory is when Christians say things like
    “They aren’t symbols of Christianity, just universal symbols of peace”
    or
    “We oppose gay marriage because we’re worried about the kids, not because of god’s word”
    The bible tells Christians to always be outspoken about their faith, and to be proud when nonbelievers ‘persecute’ them for it. These people are being forced to deny their faith in order to further their agenda, kind of like Judas. I think it’s really erodes their credibility.

    • Erik

      I meant Peter denied his faith, not Judas…

    • Anonymous

      To me it’s an execution and torture device. Especially when displayed as a crucifix and not just a simple cross

    • Drakk

      I always thought the universal peace symbol was this one http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Peace_symbol.svg

      • Anon

        essentially.

        moreso for nuclear disarmament

  • Anonymous

    The slaves of the Third Servile War who rebelled and were eventually crushed were crucified along a 200km road between Capua and Rome as a warning to would be rebels.
    Placing crosses along a highway just reminded me of that and the fantastic film, Spartacus.  The cross is a disgusting object of torture and execution that Christianity, for some unfathomable reason, has adopted as a symbol of their deity.  Why they proclaim it as a symbol of peace is beyond me.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t really have much against small crosses on the roadside. Those are common enough for memorials after a car accident. But 12 fucking feet is really pushing it. What are they compensating for?

      • 123

        their small penises

        • Anonymous

          Their lack of logic, more likely.  If you can’t come up with better arguments, repeat the same ones louder.

    • SJH

      To understand why it is a symbol of peace you have to understand what Xians believe. Assuming for a second that Jesus is God (as Xians believe), then God allowed himself to be put to a torturous death for the sake of his creation. Because he is God, by his submission to the authorities and to the cross and through his sacrifice he has expressed his love. By his rising from the dead he expressed his power over death and evil. This is a sign of hope and peace. This may all sound silly to an atheist but it is not logically inconsistent.

      • Anonymous

        We understand how Christians think. That doesn’t make it any less absurd. Especially considering that Christianity never lived up to its PR and brought little but war and strife over the world.

        Also, “dying” for three days isn’t much of a sacrifice

        • http://www.facebook.com/ulfr.kappi David Stevenson

          Our Bible(Christians) states that one life is, but a blink of they eye to God and that eternity is but the mist on a lake in the morning.  Knowing this it makes sense that it was only three days that Christ was dead and buried.

          If he was gone say for three years no one would remember him, 3 weeks they would have thought him evil and destroyed him, 3 hours they would have thought him not yet dead.  In this shows why God chose 3 days, it proves that God has power over life and death, we do not. Repent and teach is what the bible and the christian religion is all about.  

          Just to be clear, I personally hate the people on the side of the road who yell christianity and how you will burn if you do not repent.  That is not teaching, that is judging and the bible also says not to judge for the day of your death you also will be judged.

          • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

            If one life is but a blink of an eye to God, then it makes even less sense to think that 3 days (really more like 1.5) in hell is any kind of a sacrifice.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Bakos/1640766004 Matthew Bakos

            And the bible contradicts itself, often. It preaches peace and tolerance in one passage and calls for the execution of insubordinate children and the persecution of homosexuals and forbids women from teaching in others, amongst others things.  The bible is a set of  (of more often immoral and bigoted) opinions and ill-informed, ill-conceived attempts at science. What is reflected in it, is mankind’s nature. All of it. Passion, peace, tolerance, brotherhood, leadership…etc. and naivete, superstition, servility, credulity, intolerance, rage…etc. alike. It was written by either nearly or completely clueless fallible primates whose opinions and  stories and recollection of events decades past contradict each other so often, it is apparent the bible is far from having been divinely inspired. 

          • Mordred

            That’s not very Christian to hate people.

            • Anonymous

              Yes it is. It’s very Christian. Pretending that Christianity is about love and peace is just PR. I don’t get why people still fall for it

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        SJH, I understand what you’re saying, but do you agree with Mr. Nigbur’s statement?

        “We chose the cross because the cross is the international sign of peace, and it has no religious significance in it.”

        If this is so, one could erect a twelve-foot cross in the center of town in say, Yemen, and the locals would respond peaceably to this non-religious, well-recognized symbol of “peace”? Carry a three-foot tall one into a Hindu temple in India and see how much peace this religiously insignificant symbol will provoke. Put one up over a French Jewish cemetery  as a gesture of peace to the Jews living in the area, and wait for their response of gratitude. Nigbur’s nonsense is a disingenuous, cowardly, hypocritical, and entirely transparent attempt to justify continuing Christianity’s inappropriate status of privilege in the U.S. The cross does not say  “peace,” it essentially says, “Hooray for Christianity!”

        Every sneaky attempt to inject Christianity into government is a direct threat to everyone’s freedom, including Christians. They should be the most vociferously opposed to these incursions, rather than the most passively in favor.  It is astonishing to me the naivete of so many Christians who assume they’ll be happy with a government-sponsored, government-dictated version of their religion.

        • http://twitter.com/WCLPeter Rob U

          It is astonishing to me the naivete of so many Christians who assume they’ll be happy with a government-sponsored, government-dictated version of their religion.

          That’s because every single one of them are absolutely 100% convinced that its their particular branch of Christianity that will be imposed through state edict.

          Of course when its not and instead some other “heathen” branch of the faith is imposed, well by then it’ll be too late and we’ll be in full on state mandated love for the double plus good big brother in the sky.  I just have to wonder who they’ll pick to for the daily two minutes hate?

          And I don’t even know if I’m being sarcastic or overly pessimistic right now.

        • cyclingrocks

          Very well said!

      • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

        We understand what Xians believe, that’s why we know these crosses are unconstitutional.  It is only because of their religious meaning that crosses could be considered a sign of peace.  Without that religious interpretation, they’re just torture/execution devices, and they’d be about as appropriate for a memorial as a guillotine.

    • 59 Norris

      Actually, it’s not a Christian symbol for peace, well, at least not for the catholic types with the corpus still on the cross.  Rather it’s a symbol for suffering.  Maybe not so ironically, that’s not likely to make you feel any better about the whole deal.

  • sc0ttt

    I’m surprised Scalia didn’t want a piece of this action.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      It’s surprising to me as well. Maybe it’s because Scalia rationalized his idiotic decision in favor of the Mojave Desert Memorial Cross case
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/04/28/supreme-court-rules-that-a-cross-is-not-a-symbol-of-christianity/
      that a cross is “a universal symbol of the dead, rather than a universal symbol of “peace.”  It’s going to get confusing if they permit several rationalizations claiming the cross is not a symbol of Christianity, but a universal symbol of fill-in-the-blank-with-anything-you-think-people-will-like.

      • Ameise

        Well, it most certainly -is- a symbol of death…

      • CGDH

        I thought that, too. Scalia’s comments during oral arguments in Salazar v. Buono were outrageous — claiming that the cross is “the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead” and digging in his heels when the (Jewish) attorney from the ACLU challenged that understanding.

        As it turns out, Scalia isn’t even correct about the cross being a particularly popular grave marker in America. For most of American history, a cross on a gravestone was a marker that the deceased was Catholic, and cross-shaped gravemarkers were rare before the mid-20th century. Scalia, of course, is a Catholic who grew up in the mid-20th century, and is quite fond of generalizing his experience to make claims about “universal” things:

        http://www.vastpublicindifference.com/2009/10/scalia-on-grave-markers.html

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    As I understand, it’s technically four Justices OR the whim of the Chief Justice. The last is rare.

  • Anonymous

    So how long until we see the “Atheist war on Christianity and American patrol officers” video?

  • Gerry

    The symbolism of the cross just put me in mind of a Firesign Theatre bit, when the conquistadors first arrived in the new world:
    Priest: Do you recognize what it is I’m holdin’ over yer heads, lads?
    Indian: It’s a cross. The symbol of the quartering of the universe into passive and active principles.
    Priest: May God have mercy on your heathen souls!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LUPLYCZKTKH454AYNHI7CWJBJE Ben

    Based on the Christians’ argument on this, you may as well bit a swastika there because it is considered “A symbols a peace” somewhere, and the Nazi party has little to do with this. It’s silly really. And of course when you tell them to their face that their sign is worthless, they bitch at you. Let’s just hope this is one tiny step toward a country that follows its policy on religion,

  • Joshua Fisher

    “This was a risky case, but the atheists have handled themselves well.
    They made sure they constantly mentioned their respect for the officers.
    They stuck to the point about how the government shouldn’t be
    endorsing religion, and yesterday, they won the five-year-old argument.”

    The atheists may have made sure to constantly mention their respect for the officers, but I will not be surprised if that fact gets conveniently left out when the religitards post all the articles about how atheists hate state patrol officers.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    If the trooper were Jewish, would they have erected a large Star of David?

    • SeniorSkeptik

      And how long do you think a cross would have lasted had the deceased trooper been a Muslim?

  • Edmond

    Just move the crossbar piece (bearing the name) to the TOP of the support beam, making it into a “T”.  No more religious symbol, minimal effort, same materials, no impact to the “honor” or “respect” of the fallen officers.  Too simple.

  • Entertaining Doubts

    Judge Thomas: “…major review and revision of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”

    Lemme get this straight: When progressive-leaning judges try to improve things for the citizenry via their rulings, they’re accused of being “activist” and overstepping their Constitutional role. What is it called when a conservative-leaning judge does the same thing?

    Just sayin’.

    • 59 Norris

      Does review and revision of jurisprudence exceed a supreme justice’s constitutional role?

      • http://twitter.com/JasonOfTerra PhiloKGB

        I think a more charitable, and perhaps likely, interpretation of Entertaining Doubts’ comment is that liberal judges are *unfairly* accused of activism where conservative judges are correctly uncriticized in similar situations.

        • 59 Norris

          Silly me, I thought that somone writing about law would use words with more, ah, precision.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    Excellent work, AA! 

  • Anonymous

    clarence thomas scares the shit out of me. he would turn the US into a christian theocracy overnight it he could.

  • Rayy

    Wouldn’t it better if the supreme court hear the case so it would apply to all 50 states in the US?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=587301218 Taylor Michael Grin

    Hey, does anyone here know where to get a hold of the actual 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling on the case? I’d like to read their brief and see their reasoning for an article I’m writing.

  • Drumdaddy

    Clarence Thomas is a tool without a conscience or morals. Uncle Tom would be very proud of his lifetime job on the public dole, handpicked by the evil GHW Bush. Filth.

  • cyclingrocks

    Any logical person knows that a cross is christian. We think of Christ when we see it because he was allegedly killed on one. The roman’s used the cross as a torture/killing device so I’m not sure why christians adopted it as a sign of peace although I don’t think they really did. (I’ve always found it disgusting when I see it.) Constantinople forced the cross on people when he joined the christian religion and he turned the cross into a weapon whereby he murdered anyone who wasn’t christian in the name of the cross. He put the symbol on all of his weapons and it represented war, torture, destruction and fear. It is still a “fear weapon” in civilized societies.