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.