Honoring fallen troopers or endorsing religion? Highway crosses in Utah
Crosses are once again in the courts as the state of Utah fights for its right to memorialize fallen state troopers through white crosses on highways.
In August 2010, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 14 white crosses violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of a religion. But it has since placed a stay on the order, which would remove the crosses, paving the way for the case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A group called American Atheists Inc. sued the state of Utah in 2005, saying the crosses should be taken off state land. Its attorney, Brian Barnard, told the Deseret News: “The cross is such a poignant religious symbol that calling it a memorial and putting the troopers’ names on it doesn’t change the significant poignant nature of the cross. And when you put it on government property, it becomes government endorsement.”
But Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff disagrees, saying that crosses take on a different, nonreligious meaning in this context.
|American Athiests, Inc. say that the state of Utah violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – by placing the crosses along the highway.It was included in the Bill of Rights so the government would not be able to establish a national religion. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase "separation of church and state" when writing about the First Amendment.
“People know when they see a white cross on the side of the road, they know somebody died there,” he said. “The poor atheist who sees that knows it. He’s not forced to think about Christ or Christianity or to change his religion.”
This argument comes up often; in 2009, the Supreme Court heard arguments over the constitutionality of a cross in the middle of the Mojave Desert, on a federal preserve. This cross was meant to memorialize veterans of World War I, but a caretaker sued, saying it violated the establishment clause. The Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court in late April 2010; Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement of religion does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.” Two weeks later, the cross was stolen.
In Utah, American Atheists Inc. is not looking to remove the memorials to the fallen state troopers. It wants them honored, Barnard told the Deseret News, but the group wants the state to find a secular way to do it. “The memorials … should be such that they don’t emphasize…one religion to the exclusion of others,” he said.
What do you think?
Do highway crosses honor fallen state troopers or endorse religion? Does the cross take on a nonreligious meaning in this context, indicating that someone died but not advocating one faith over others? Or does a cross’s religious meaning override any other context? If you were an atheist, would you find these crosses offensive? What if you were an atheist and a relative of a fallen trooper? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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