First Amendment

US Appeals Court Rules Roadside Crosses for Fallen Cops Violate Constitution

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A federal appeals court has ruled that roadside crosses erected to honor fallen highway patrol officers in Utah violate the establishment clause.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in a suit filed by an atheists group, according to stories in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor and CNN.

A nonprofit group raised private funds to finance the 14 crosses, placed mostly on public land alongside highways with permission of the state, the Salt Lake Tribune says. The 12-foot-high crosses have information about the troopers along with the beehive insignia of the state highway patrol. The nonprofit got permission of the families, none of whom objected.

The panel decision overturned a lower court ruling.

“We conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity,” the appeals panel said in its decision (PDF). “The massive size of the crosses displayed on … public property unmistakably conveys a message of endorsement, proselytization, and aggrandizement of religion that is far different from the more humble spirit of small roadside crosses.”

The court also said the state symbol on the crosses suggests that Christians are more likely to receive preferential treatment from state troopers.

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