The move by the patrol association came after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case, disappointing social conservatives. The court's inaction Oct. 31 allowed a decision by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to stand that said the crosses amounted to an unconstitutional government establishment of religion. A reasonable observer, the Tenth Circuit Court ruled, would believe the "state of Utah is endorsing Christianity."
The 12-foot-tall, six-foot-wide crosses throughout Utah honor state troopers killed in action. They are placed as close as possible to the place of death, and they have the trooper's name, rank and badge number, along with a photo.
It remains to be seen whether the association's move will appease the court.
The Utah Highway Patrol Association (UHPA) announced its action in late November, saying it "voluntarily" removed the Utah Highway Patrol logo. The association also added a sign stating that each of the crosses is a "private memorial" and is not a "state endorsement of any religion." Furthermore, it said that family members could choose "another appropriate symbol" instead of a cross.
"The UHPA constructed these memorials in the Latin-cross shape not for the purpose of endorsing any religion, but instead, because in this roadside context the cross, unlike any other marker, communicates to motorists passing at highway speeds the simultaneous messages of death, honor, remembrance, and safety," the association said in a statement.
Although the Utah Highway Patrol is part of a state agency, the Utah Highway Patrol Association is private.
"The UHPA," the association said, "selected and designed the memorials without government input, constructed and placed the memorials without government funding or assistance, retains ownership of the memorials without transferring that interest to the government, and maintains the memorials without government resources."
The crosses not only memorialize troopers killed in duty but also remind citizens to drive safely, the association said.
An attorney who represents American Atheists -- which filed the lawsuit -- said the association's action is not enough.
"It's a step in the right direction," attorney Brian Barnard told the Associated Press. "But the cross still remains a poignant religious symbol and it's in a prominent place on government property where no other organization or individual is given permission to have a similar display."
An obelisk, Barnard said, would be a better substitute.
The Tenth Circuit also covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming, meaning the case's impact could be felt elsewhere.
"None of their crosses on public property will be tolerated either," Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, which submitted a brief supporting the crosses, said in October. "And if this decision is ever applied nationally, as FRC's amicus brief pointed out, Arlington National Cemetery and other landmarks would have to be completely dismantled. Of course, the irony is that these roadside crosses are not only constitutional, but they also represent the very values that our Constitution celebrates."
Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/Baptist Press) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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