Religion in Society

Atheists Win! Court Refuses to Hear Utah Crosses Case

| by American Atheists

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a request to have an entire panel of judges to rehear whether the 14 large, white crosses that currently commemorate fallen Utah Highway Patrol troopers are unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel ruled in August that the 12-foot crosses — which bear the UHP insignia — are unconstitutional, government endorsements of religion on public lands. The decision favored the Texas-based group American Atheists, Inc., who sued the Utah Highway Patrol and Utah Highway Patrol Association in 2005 in an effort to get the crosses removed from state lands.

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The Utah Highway Patrol and Utah Highway Patrol Association then asked for a rehearing on the issue in front of the entire panel of active judges on the 10th Circuit — a total of 10, plus one senior judge. On Monday, that request was denied.

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This is what a legal victory looks like. American Atheists has a strong legal philosophy which mandates that we look at a case’s winnability, as well as the very-real negative impacts of losing, and weigh the cases accordingly. As such, we have turned down involving ourselves in cases involving the President’s oath and the Pledge of Allegiance, not because they were unjust, but because they were unwinnable in the long term (even when they win, they lose on appeal). We were right — these cases have been lost, and when they do they create bad law or bad precedent. Today, ceremonial deism in government is reinforced by failed lawsuits filed by well-meaning people within our own movement.

Our cases win. In Utah, they were trying to declare the cross a secular monument while standing behind dead cops as a shield. Nobody wanted to fight that case, because nobody wanted to appear to be fighting memorials for fallen troopers. If they had won this case, or had we not challenged it, secular crosses would have popped up all over the public land, without the need to worry about Equal Access or SOCAS violations. Secular crosses would have found their way into schools and courtrooms — that was their plan.

We knew 1) the case was winnable, 2) the case was important, and 3) we had little to lose legally, so we attacked. And won. And their appeal was denied. And we set a solid precedent that the cross is not a secular symbol. Yes, we were hated by many when we took on this unpopular case, but it was important, and we won.

Utah’s next step is to decide whether they want to go to the Supreme Court. I hope they do, for two reasons: 1) I want this win to have nationwide implications, and 2) I want to see the faces on the Catholic and Jewish judges faces when Utah tries to explain that the cross can have no religious meaning.

American Atheists doesn’t play around when it comes to legal challenges. We file suits with strategy, not with ego. We fight to win cases, not to build our membership.

I am pleased to announce the Uhl 25K Legal Challenge for 2011. Donations to our legal fund will be matched. Please help us build our Legal Department so we can address the myriad of winnable and strategically important cases that need to be filed. What a great way to get a 2010 tax deduction! Simply click here and place the phrase “Uhl Challenge” in the “note to seller” box to have your donation doubled!

Special congratulations to Edwin Kagin (Legal Director), Attorney Brian Barnard, and Board member Rich Andrews for this great win.