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After Supreme Court Denies Cert, Police Association Must Contend With Unconstitutional Highway Crosses

Since 1998, the Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private organization, has paid for and erected more than a dozen 12-foot-high crosses to honor fallen state troopers. Ten of the memorial crosses are on public land.

A group called American Atheists challenged this practice in a 2005 lawsuit, arguing that the crosses were an endorsement of Christianity by the Utah state government, and therefore unconstitutional. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, holding that the memorial crosses did not violate the federal or state constitution. Plaintiffs appealed, however, and in December 2010 the 10th Circuit reversed the lower court, holding that the crosses did "have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the State prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion. They therefore violate the Establishment Clause of the federal constitution."

The defendants asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the issue, but on Oct. 31, 2011, the Supreme Court denied the petition and refused to hear the case. The Utah Highway Patrol Association has since tried to remedy the "unconstitutional memorial" problem, the Deseret News reports, by removing all UHP logos from the 14 crosses at issue and "tap[ing] on notes stating they are private memorials."

Brian Barnard, an attorney representing American Atheists Inc. said that even with these changes, the fact that the crosses are on government property still presents a problem. "Those crosses are on government property only with the permission of Utah officials," Barnard said. He noted that the disclaimers are too small to be read from a car traveling on the highway and that "a reasonable observer seeing the Roman cross on the front lawn of a UHP office will see an improper connection between the state of Utah and Christianity."

The UHP has had offers from people to help buy the land on which the crosses stand to make it private property, but Barnard said this idea of buying "postage stamp sized pieces of land" has been tried in other states and does not work. "A private plot of land in the middle of government land still gives the impression of government support," he said.

Barnard and other atheist groups have stated that more litigation is likely to follow if the UHPA simply uses these disclaimers instead of some other symbol that is "inclusive of all Utahns."

Posted by Bruce Carton on November 21, 2011 at 05:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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