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Groups weigh in on fate of 14 crosses

Published August 16, 2008 12:00 am

Briefs have been filed in support of the position taken by American Atheists Inc.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The battle over the fate of 14 crosses, memorializing fallen Utah Highway Patrol troopers, got a little more crowded earlier this month when two groups of national organizations stepped into the mix.

Briefs filed Aug. 5 and 6 in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver support American Atheists Inc., a Texas-based group that first filed suit on the matter in 2005. The atheist organization argued that the 12-foot-high crosses, along state highways, are religious symbols that should be removed because their being on public land is unconstitutional - a violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits government establishment of religion.

U.S. District Judge David Sam rejected that argument last year, saying the context of the crosses was secular in nature. He viewed them as symbols of sacrifice and reminders to drive safely. Sam also pointed out that because most of the deceased troopers were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith that does not use the cross as a symbol, the memorials couldn't be construed as promoting religion and were merely markers of death.

American Atheists appealed the ruling in March and now has the backing of those who signed off on this month's briefs. The first supporting document was submitted by the American Humanist Association, the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The second came from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation, the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the Union for Reform Judaism and the recently retired Eugene Fisher, who for three decades was in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Having these voices weigh in helps refocus attention on what matters, said Salt Lake attorney Brian Barnard, who's representing the atheist organization. He said the case has been "characterized as a bunch of atheists trying to take the crosses down" and that having supporters who are clearly not atheists and are vested in protecting religious rights pokes holes in that assumption.

Among arguments presented in the briefs is that calling the cross a secular symbol is offensive to Christians who have accepted the cross as their pre-eminent symbol for about 2,000 years.

Everyone agrees that the troopers who died deserve to be honored and memorialized, Barnard continued, but "let's do it in a way that doesn't emphasize religion."

The crosses, first erected in 1998, were the brainchild of Robert Kirby, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune and a former police officer. He partnered up with the Utah Highway Patrol Association to start the project. As far as Barnard knows, there is no other "comparable use of the Roman cross anywhere else," although he said the nation is dotted with memorials that are "done tastefully," without religious symbols.

The appellate decision can't be expected for at least eight or nine months, the attorney said, and might be a couple of years in coming.

"I gave up a long time ago predicting what judges will do. . . . But every federal court that has considered stand-alone Roman crosses like this has ruled that they're exclusive symbols of Christianity and that it's unconstitutional to have them on government property."

jravitz@sltrib.com