Highway Crosses Ruling Could Prompt More Suits, Legal Group Says

08/20/2010 05:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • By Adelle M. Banks Religion News Service

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) An appeals court ruling that said highway crosses erected to honor fallen Utah state troopers are unconstitutional could prompt additional challenges in other states, legal experts said.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday (Aug. 18) that the 12-foot crosses violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement of religion.

"We hold that these memorials have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion," the court ruled, overturning a lower court decision.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which argued in favor of the crosses on behalf of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, said the case could have repercussions beyond Utah.

"In the wake of this decision, any privately-erected, religious memorials on government property in those states could be vulnerable to a court challenge," the organization said in a statement.

The Becket Fund said the case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the Deseret News that he disagreed with the ruling in the case brought by American Atheists.

"People know when they see a white cross on the side of the road, they know somebody died there," he said. "The poor atheist who sees that knows it. He's not forced to think about Christ or Christianity or to change his religion."

The American Humanist Association, which filed a brief opposing the crosses, hailed the ruling.

"Governmental endorsement of Christianity, even in the form of an officer's memorial, isn't appropriate on our public highways," said David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association.

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