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Atheist Group Plans to Appeal Judge's Ruling to Allow Cross Memorials for Fallen Troopers

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Memorial in honor of Trooper William John Antoniewicz, who was killed in 1974 after he was shot during a traffic stop. (Courtesy of Utah Highway Patrol Association)

A national atheist group plans to appeal a judge's ruling that allows 14 white steel cross memorials to remain alongside Utah highways to honor fallen troopers.

American Atheists Inc. claims that the crosses represent the death of Jesus Christ and violate the First Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits government establishment of religion.

"How any judge can look at a Roman cross and say it's not the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity is beyond me," said Dave Silverman, a spokesman for the group.

U.S. District Judge David Sam on Tuesday ruled that the crosses send a secular, not religious, message.

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• Click here to visit the Alliance Defense Fund Web site.

• Click here to visit the American Atheists Web site.

Families of the fallen troopers contend the crosses, which bear the names and badge numbers of the troopers, are merely memorials to honor their loved ones.

"For right now, we're relieved," said Clint Pierson, son of Trooper Ray Lynn Pierson, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in 1978.

"We won Round 1, but we still have Rounds 2 and 3 to go," Pierson said.

American Atheists say they will fight the ruling in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Utah Highway Patrol Association defends the crosses, erected on government land, saying they serve an additional purpose of reminding speeding drivers to slow down.

Silverman said the Utah Highway Patrol Association is not being truthful about the meaning behind the cross, saying it is Christian.

The group wants to replace the cross structure with a secular symbol, Silverman said, and is seeking $1 in monetary damages.

Gary McCaleb, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents the Utah Highway Patrol Association, said assurances have been made to accommodate wishes of family members who want a different symbol to commemorate their loved one, for example, if a Jewish family wants a Star of David instead of the cross.

McCaleb said he has no doubts the atheist group will lose its appeal

"It's an outrage," McCaleb said. "The facts of this case are so clear."

The Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private organization, designed and constructed the memorials with private funding in 1998. Under Utah state law, private citizens can memorialize troopers who died in the line of duty.

The New Jersey-based American Atheists first filed suit in 2005, arguing that the crosses symbolize Christianity and break state and federal laws against roadside memorials.

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