By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider whether roadside memorial crosses to honor fallen state highway troopers violated church-state separation, staying out of a dispute over religious symbols on public land.
The justices refused to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that the 14 large cross memorials erected along Utah public roads conveyed the message to most passing motorists of government endorsement of Christianity.
The Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private group that organized the placement of the crosses to commemorate troopers killed in the line of duty, and state officials appealed to the Supreme Court.
They said the appeals court used the wrong legal test in deciding whether a display with religious imagery violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on government endorsement of religion. They supported a more lenient test that allows such displays.
The monuments, first erected in 1998, were paid for with private funds and all but three are on public property.
The Supreme Court rejected the appeals in a brief order.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. He said the court passed up an opportunity to provide clarity to an area of jurisprudence that has "rendered the constitutionality of displays of religious imagery on government property anyone's guess."
The Supreme Court for years has been closely divided and has struggled with cases involving what religious displays can be put on public property.
In the most recent decision, the court ruled by a 5-4 vote in 2010 that a federal judge erred in ordering the removal of a large Christian cross intended to serve as a war memorial in a remote part of the California desert.
The court in 2005 ruled that putting framed copies of the Ten Commandments in county courthouses was unconstitutional but allowed a commandments monument as part of larger display on the Texas Capitol grounds.
The challenge to the Utah crosses was brought by a Texas-based group called American Atheists, which sued to remove the memorials from state property.
It said the Latin cross has been a traditional Christian symbol, representing the story of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, and that the memorials conveyed the message that the state endorsed Christianity.
The 12-foot-high white crosses, with 6-foot horizontal crossbars, have the fallen trooper's name, rank and badge number printed in larger letters on the crossbar.
The memorials also have a small plaque with a picture of the trooper, some biographical information and the state highway patrol insignia.
The cases are Utah Highway Patrol Association v. American Atheists, No. 10-1276, and Lance Davenport v. American Atheists, No. 10-1297.
(Editing by Bill Trott)