WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court won't hear an appeal of a ruling that 12-foot-high crosses along Utah highways in honor of dead state troopers violate the Constitution.
The justices voted 8-1 Monday to reject an appeal from Utah and a state troopers' group that wanted the court to throw out the ruling and take a more permissive view of religious symbols on public land.
Since 1998, the private Utah Highway Patrol Association has paid for and erected more than a dozen memorial crosses, most of them on state land. Texas-based American Atheists Inc. and three of its Utah members sued the state in 2005.
The federal appeals court in Denver said the crosses were an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity by the Utah state government.
Justice Clarence Thomas issued a 19-page opinion dissenting from Monday's order. Thomas said the case offered the court the opportunity to clear up confusion over its approach to disputes over the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the prohibition against governmental endorsement of religion.
"Today the court rejects an opportunity to provide clarity to an Establishment Clause jurisprudence in shambles," Thomas said.
Previous high court cases have made it difficult for lower courts to figure out what to do in this area and "rendered the constitutionality of displays of religious imagery on government property anyone's guess," he said.
Thomas referred specifically to a pair of 2005 cases about the Ten Commandments. On the same day, the court upheld a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol in Austin and declared unconstitutional a display in the McCreary County courthouse in Kentucky.