CONTINUING CONTROVERSY:  
AMERICAN ATHEISTS INC. v. DUNCAN,  THE "UTAH TROOPER CROSSES" CASE

Roadside memorials are erected to mark the passing of all kinds of people, but there is one kind of memorial that is particularly distinctive: memorials to a law enforcement officers who died on the road in the line of duty. Such memorials tend to pointedly note the occupation and jurisdiction of the deceased, with badge numbers and replicas and as well as name. They are also often larger and more permanent than other memorials. It is evident that they are felt by those who put them up to be in a class by themselves, and to be particularly deserving of being where they are. Undoubtedly, such memorials are also likely to be treated with more respect (and tolerated for longer periods of time) by highway crews and local civil authorities, than are memorials to civilians.

Understandably, the feelings provoked by a challenge to roadside memorials tend to run higher when memorials to law enforcement officers are involved. This is illustrated in the case of American Atheists v. Duncan, in which a federal court of appeals will soon be issuing a decision which may have a wide-ranging impact.

In 1998 a private organization, the Utah Highway Patrol Association (UHPA), began a program of putting up 12-foot high crosses near places where a Utah highway patrol officer died in the line of duty. Each showed the Utah Highway Patrol's insignia as well as the officer's name. Many were placed on public property. The program was carried out with the knowledge and consent, albeit  not the direct support, of the State of Utah.

American Atheists, Inc. challenged the UHPA program in Utah federal district court, arguing that it involved government endorsement of religion. In November, 2007, the court dismissed the challenge and permitted the program to continue. The court reasoned that while the cross retained a religious meaning when in a religious context, it had transformed into an essentially secular symbol representing death and/or burial when placed in pop culture settings and when used as a memorial:

...the cross has attained a secular status as Americans have used it to honor the place where fallen soldiers and citizens lay buried, or had fatal accidents, regardless of their religious belief. And the progression of the cross from a religious to a secular symbol continues as crosses are increasingly used to symbolize death in advertising campaigns, films, television, and seasonal holiday decorations -- frequently having nothing to do with religion or a particular religious belief. Consequently, the court finds a reasonable observer, aware of the history and context of the community would not view the memorial crosses as a government endorsement of religion.

American Atheists appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. A three-judge panel of that court, which is located in Denver, heard oral argument in the case on March 9, 2009.  A decision is expected this summer.

Some of the briefs which have been filed in the Court of Appeals are available on-line, and they provide a good overview of the issues and arguments:

Brief of Utah Highway Patrol Association

Brief Of Amici Curiae Americans United For Separation Of Church And State, The Anti-Defamation League, The Hindu American Foundation, The Interfaith Alliance, The Union For Reform Judaism, And Dr. Eugene J. Fisher

Brief amici curiae of the States of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma and the Becket Fund For Religious Liberty

Brief of amicus curiae Robert E. Mackey

 

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More about roadside memorials here:

Descansos: Roadside Memorials on the American Highway

 

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BY DAVE NANCE
   

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text and images 2004 by David B. Nance