By Joseph L. Conn
Muslim and the Christian cross is not a secular symbol or a highway safety sign.
The first two assertions are too obviously true to need discussion. You’d have to be pretty darn clueless not to come to those conclusions.
Apparently, the third assertion needs some help. It took a ruling by a federal appeals court to let everyone in Utah know that the cross is a Christian symbol, not a secular sign of death or a message telling motorists to slow down.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously yesterday that a series of 12-foot crosses erected on public land in the Beehive State violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
State officials and the Utah Highway Patrol Association have put up the sectarian displays — which included the official logo of the Utah Highway Patrol at the center of the cross — to honor troopers who died in public service. They said the crosses were being used as secular symbols and that they were also intended to encourage safe conduct on the highways.
The appellate judges were predictably unpersuaded. Passers-by, the panel held, are likely to see the large symbols as government preference for Christianity.
“Here, we conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity,” the court said. “The memorials use the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and they do so standing alone (as opposed to it being part of some sort of display involving other symbols). That cross conspicuously bears the imprimatur of a state entity, the [Utah Highway Patrol], and is found primarily on public land.
“The fact that the cross includes biographical information about the fallen trooper does not diminish the governmental message endorsing Christianity,” the court continued. “This is especially true because a motorist driving by one of the memorial crosses at 55-plus miles per hour may not notice, and certainly would not focus on, the biographical information. The motorist, however, is bound to notice the preeminent symbol of Christianity and the [Utah Highway Patrol] insignia, linking the State to that religious sign.”
The judges were particularly concerned about the two crosses posted near the Highway Patrol headquarters. Non-Christians visiting the office might easily come to fear that they could receive less than equitable treatment when the agency is prominently displaying the symbols of one particular faith.
Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the American Atheists v. Duncan case urging the judges to recognize the cross as a religious symbol and to uphold the separation of church and state.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told the Salt Lake Tribune that he is pleased with the court ruling.
“The cross is a Christian symbol,” said Lynn, “and it shouldn’t be used by government to memorialize officers who come from many faith traditions.” (Barry has some expertise in this area since he is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, as well as a long-time civil liberties lawyer.)
This case attracted the usual array of Religious Right groups fighting to impose their theocratic agenda on America. The Alliance Defense Fund was involved, along with the Becket Fund and Alabama “Commandments” Judge Roy Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law.
Fortunately, several religious groups also weighed in to urge the court not to let government co-opt the symbols of one faith and make some citizens feel like second-class citizens.
This case is only one small skirmish in the battle to preserve church-state separation, but important principles are at stake. And we’re glad the court ruled the way it did.