Judges weigh whether Utah crosses are secular

DENVER (AP) — A federal appeals court is weighing Utah's use of crosses on roadside memorials honoring fallen highway patrol troopers, trying to decide if they are an endorsement of religion or a nonreligious, secular symbol of death.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday in the case involving what the group American Atheists called "heroic-size" 12-foot-high crosses placed along state highways.

Utah's 14 memorial crosses, paid for by the private Utah Highway Patrol Association, contain the highway patrol's logo and a small plaque with a photo and short biography of the fallen trooper, as well as the trooper's name, rank, badge number and year of death.

A federal judge in Utah ruled in 2007 that the crosses communicate a secular message about the deaths of the troopers and are not an illegal public endorsement of religion. That judge cited the use of religious symbols in military cemeteries.

Utah Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts defended the use of the privately funded crosses as a way to quickly convey a message to passing motorists that a trooper died there, and said the crosses are not an endorsement of religion.

But Texas-based American Atheists argued that the crosses are symbols that convey a government endorsement of religion and shouldn't be on public land.

American Atheists' attorney Brian Barnard argued that without any context, the crosses could indicate that the trooper who died was a Christian.

"Here these crosses stand alone," Barnard told the judges. "There isn't anything else nearby that says they're not religious in nature."

Luke Goodrich, an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argued on behalf of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas, which asked to argue because the case could affect memorials in their states. Goodrich asked the judges to decide the case not on the religiousness of crosses, but on whether the state provides a neutral forum for expression.

A joint resolution by the Utah Legislature in 2006 declared the cross a nonreligious, secular symbol of death, Roberts said.

Appeals Court Judge David M. Ebel told Roberts that Utah's declaration doesn't necessarily make it so. "Declaring something a purse doesn't make it a purse," Ebel said.

Judge Harris Hartz later asked Roberts: "Give me an example that it's a secular symbol of death. Show me a non-Christian that uses a cross to symbolize death."

The judges also expressed concern that Utah officials would not allow a similarly sized religious symbol, a Star of David symbolizing the Jewish faith, for example, if a trooper's family requested one.

"If it was a Jewish or a Muslim trooper, that person wouldn't get it. That's where I have a problem," Ebel said.

The judges did not say when they would rule.

Anyone else following this? It seems crazy to me. I suppose the whole idea that Jesus died on the cross is now completely irrelevant to Christians, which kind of makes Jesus himself completely irrelevant.

I don't think atheists should stand alone in this battle.

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Yeah it is silly but this "battle" is only going to make atheists look worse than we already do. I mean, out of all of the legislature and things that we could be fighting against this seems wrong to me. It is wrong, no doubt, to have twelve foot crosses on the side of the road in utah but it will be seen as atheists attacking dead highway patrol officers and everything that is sacred in the country, not fighting religious prejudices. I am a member of American Atheists (because I registered online) and I get updates on what is new, what they are working on. I respect what they do because at least they are doing something but I also feel we are at a point now where we really need to pick our battles and this is something that can wait. This can wait until after we fight the teaching of ID in our science classes in many states and things of this nature that effect our young people. I dunno, I just think there are more pressing issues to be taking a stand against, this is as much a PR campaign as it is a campaign for change.


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