(CN) – The 10th Circuit has ordered the removal of 12-foot high crosses honoring dead Utah highway patrol troopers, ruling that the memorials are unconstitutional.
The Denver-based federal appeals court said the white crosses “have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion.”
The Utah Highway Patrol Association began placing the steel crosses on state highways in 1998. Each memorial displays the name of the fallen trooper, the year in which he died and a biographical plaque.
The American Atheists and three Utah residents challenged the crosses on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. They argued that residents were forced into “direct and unwelcome contact with the memorial crosses … and would have to alter their commutes in order to avoid” them.
The Utah Highway Patrol Association said that it consulted with the troopers’ families before erecting the crosses and would have used “a different symbol” by request.
The state government argued that the crosses were private speech, because Utah did not pay for them, adding that it neither approved nor disapproved of the project.
But the 10th Circuit disagreed, reversing a federal judge’s ruling for the state.
“The government’s actions in this case-allowing these memorial crosses to be displayed with the official Utah Highway Patrol insignia primarily on public land-cannot be overshadowed by its attempts to distance itself from the message conveyed by these displays,” Judge David Ebel wrote for the three-judge panel.
He added that none of the crosses had been removed, making the memorials “permanent enough to constitute government speech.”
He said the crosses implied “some connection between the Utah Highway Patrol and Christianity” that might “lead the reasonable observer to fear that Christians are likely to receive preferential treatment from the Utah Highway Patrol-both in their hiring practices and, more generally, in the treatment that people may expect to receive on Utah’s highways.”
Utah tried to frame the argument in the context of accepted “secular symbols of death,” citing crosses used to honor fallen soldiers.
But Ebel responded that a cross “memorializes the death of a Christian,” finding no evidence that “the cross has been universally embraced as a marker for the burial sites of non-Christians or as a memorial for a non-Christian’s death.”
The judge said the “massive” size of the crosses was “particularly troubling” and communicated “a message of endorsement, proselytization, and aggrandizement of religion that is far different from the more humble spirit of small roadside crosses.”