The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to bring a decision from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver into alignment with its precedents in a dispute over cross memorials to fallen Utah state highway patrol troopers.
Officials with the Alliance Defense Fund today said they have filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court that asks the court to affirm the constitutionality of roadside memorial crosses honoring the fallen officers.
ADF argues that the precedent also should apply to the Utah dispute.
“One atheist group’s agenda shouldn’t diminish the sacrifice made by Utah highway patrol officers and their families. We are asking the Supreme Court to allow the families of the fallen to honor their loved ones through these constitutionally permissible memorials,” said ADF Senior Counsel Byron Babione.
“The Supreme Court recently signaled that individualized memorial crosses honoring fallen troopers simply do not amount to a government establishment of religion. That guidance applies directly to this case,” he said.
A district court judge affirmed the constitutionality of the memorials, but when the dispute was elevated to the Denver court, the judges condemned the crosses on the narrowest of margins, 5-4.
The four judges who dissented raised strong objections to the censorship that the decision appeared to impose.
“The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm,” the Supreme Court wrote in its 2010 decision regarding a cross memorial in the Mojave Desert. “A cross by the side of a public highway marking, for instance, the place where a state trooper perished need not be taken as a statement of governmental support for sectarian beliefs. The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.”
Argued the ADF brief, “The 10th Circuit’s decision conflicts with this court’s Establishment Clause precedent. The 10th Circuit invalidated the challenged roadside memorials by (1) fixating on their cross shape, (2) ignoring most of their features, history, and context, and (3) opining that the Establishment Clause forbids such displays unless the overall setting nullifies any religious significance.”
However, “This court … has denounced each of these analytical missteps. In short, the 10th Circuit’s approach, if allowed to stand, will prohibit the government from accommodating public displays of religious symbols, forbid a widely embraced means of commemorating fallen heroes on public property, and manifest an unconstitutional hostility toward religion.”
ADF warned that if the Utah crosses are disallowed, the result “could jeopardize similar memorials honoring other fallen heroes across the nation, including 14 crosses on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain where firefighters lost their lives in a 1994 wildfire.”
The case originated with complaints from American Atheists who sued the Utah Highway Patrol and the Utah Transportation Department, alleging the memorials are a government establishment of religion.
That claim was pursued even though the memorials are funded and maintained by a private group, the Utah Highway Patrol Association, which supports patrol officers and their families.
WND columnist David Limbaugh, when the earlier ruling banishing the crosses was released, blasted the judiciary for its “allergy” to Christianity.
“Our politically correct-intoxicated culture is so allergic to expressions and symbols of Christianity that our courts leap to absurd conclusions to cordon off the chief allergen: Christianity,” he wrote at the time.
“The egregious constitutional infraction here is not that the government put up the signs, which it didn’t, but that the memorials were placed along public roads. Thus, ‘reasonable’ passing motorists – as opposed, I guess, to those afflicted with anti-Christian road rage – might well assume that the government is endorsing the Christian religion. Horror of horrors. My gosh, what would the largely Christian founders think?”
He continued. “I don’t think it’s a reasonable inference at all that the government is making a religious statement by permitting the placement of these memorials along the public highway. On the other hand, I think the government would be (and is) making a statement against Christianity by denying this group access because of its paranoia about going into Christian-spawned anaphylactic shock.”
The memorials have remained in place during the court process, but their future depends entirely on the high court accepting the case and reversing the lower court’s decision.