Thursday, August 19, 2010

What next? Court says crosses along Utah highways must go.

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)--Crosses alongside Utah highways and roads that memorialize fallen state troopers are unconstitutional and must be removed, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in a case that could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the crosses, which are 12 feet tall, six feet wide and have state approval, amount to an unconstitutional government establishment of religion. Each cross has the trooper's name, rank and badge number, along with the year he or she died, biographical information and a picture. It also has the Utah Highway Patrol official symbol. The program, started in 1998, places the cross as near as possible to the death site.

The organization American Atheists filed the suit, with one of the plaintiffs even saying he occasionally altered his travel route to avoid seeing a cross. Supporters of the crosses say they will appeal the decision, either to the full Tenth Circuit or to the Supreme Court.

The crosses themselves are privately funded, although most of them are on public land. There are more than a dozen of them statewide.

"[W]e conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity," the court ruled in a 35-page decision that reversed a lower court. "The memorials use the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and they do so standing alone (as opposed to it being part of some sort of display involving other symbols). That cross conspicuously bears the imprimatur of a state entity, the [Utah Highway Patrol], and is found primarily on public land."

Although the Tenth Circuit cited Supreme Court precedent, supporters of the crosses say the high court already addressed the issue in a recent opinion. In an April decision in which the Supreme Court allowed a cross to remain in the Mojave Desert, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority, asserted that the "goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.

"A cross by the side of a public highway marking, for instance, the place where a state trooper perished need not be taken as a statement of governmental support for sectarian beliefs," Kennedy wrote in the case, Salazar v. Buono. "The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society."

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