A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that roadside crosses erected to memorialize fallen Utah Highway Patrol officers violate the First Amendment’s prohibition of government endorsement of religion.
The Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals said that the 12-foot-high crosses bearing the name and badge number of deceased officers sent an unconstitutional religious message to motorists on the state’s highways.
“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. They therefore violate the establishment clause of the federal constitution,” the appeals court said in a 35-page decision.
Proponents of strict separation between church and state immediately praised the decision.
“This is an important victory,” 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.”
He added, “There are other ways to honor fallen officers, and the court’s recognition of this certainly strengthens secular government.”
13 crosses on Utah highways
Since 1998, two members of the Utah Highway Patrol Association have organized the placement of monuments on Utah roadsides to honor fallen troopers. Before erecting each memorial, the group consults the family of the fallen trooper about the potential of erecting a memorial in the form of a large cross. No family has objected to the cross or requested a different symbol.
Currently, 13 crosses are displayed along Utah highways. They include a photo of the fallen trooper, the year of death, and biographical information. They also display the insignia of the highway patrol.
American Atheists, Inc., objected to the crosses being displayed on public land and sued to have them removed.
A federal judge threw the lawsuit out. On Wednesday, the appeals court reversed that decision, agreeing with the atheist group that the crosses violate the separation of church and state.
Supporters of the cross memorials argued that they are no different than the crosses in military cemeteries or those used in other roadside memorials marking the site of traffic fatalities.
The appeals court judges disagreed. They said the critical issue was how the large white crosses on public land would be perceived by motorists and others. “We conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity,” they said. “The memorials use the preeminent symbol of Christianity.”
Qualms over crosses' 'massive size'
While most roadside memorials marking traffic fatalities are 12 to 16 inches high, the troopers’ crosses are 10 times that size, the court said. “The massive size of the crosses displayed on … 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 court said.
The judges said they were also concerned that the memorials included the insignia of the Utah Highway Patrol. They said the combination of the cross and insignia links the state with a particular religious symbol. And that, they said, “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.”
The judges added: “The reasonable observer’s fear of unequal treatment would likely be compounded by the fact that these memorials carry the same symbol that appears on UHP patrol vehicles.”
The decision notes that most residents of Utah were raised as or are followers of the Mormon religion, which does not view the cross as a religious symbol. The judges noted that “cross-revering Christians comprise approximately 18 percent of the population of Utah.”
But they went on to stress that the state could still violate the establishment clause by promoting the cross and the religious groups that do revere it.