Published January 13, 2015
If a national atheist organization has its way, a series of 12-foot-tall memorial crosses that adorn Utah's highways will be taken down.
But not if the families of the people those crosses honor — state Highway Patrol troopers killed in the line of duty — have anything to say about it.
American Atheists Inc. has filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that the 13 white, steel crosses represent the death of Jesus Christ and therefore violate the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits government establishment of religion.
But the families of the fallen heroes say otherwise. They say the crosses, which bear the names and badge numbers of the troopers, were built strictly as memorials.
"We're being attacked personally for something we did to help us heal," said Clint Pierson, whose father, Trooper Ray Lynn Pierson, was shot and killed during a traffic stop in 1978.
"We put the crosses up as a memorial to the fallen officers."
The Utah Highway Patrol Association defends the crosses, which have the Highway Patrol logo on them and have been erected on government land. It says they are secular symbols that both honor the troopers and remind speeding drivers to slow down.
"I think it's ridiculous that a small group of offended atheists would seek to stop the family of slain troopers from honoring their loved ones as they see fit," said Byron Babione, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents the Utah Highway Patrol Association.
"These memorial crosses clearly do nothing more than honor fallen troopers and promote highway safety."
The New Jersey-based American Atheists filed suit in 2005, arguing that the crosses symbolize Christianity and break state and federal laws against roadside memorials.
"They know very well that the cross is a Christian symbol," said Dave Silverman, spokesman for the group. "They are breaking the law by putting up memorials for fallen heroes."
The atheists support putting up memorials for fallen heroes, but oppose using a religious symbol to do so, Silverman said.
The crosses are not there to make a religious statement, but to serve as a memorial to the fallen officers, Pierson said.
"We were just trying to honor someone who gave their lives for the public good," Pierson said.
The Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private organization, designed and constructed the memorials with private funding in 1998. Private citizens can memorialize troopers who died in the line of duty, under Utah state law, Babione said.
"There's nothing unconstitutional here because the memorials cost taxpayers nothing," he said.
But Brian Barnard, a lawyer representing American Atheists, said the memorial is a Roman cross, which symbolizes Christianity.
"The use of those crosses constitutes and endorses Christianity," Barnard said. "Although it's an acknowledgement of the death of these troopers, it is also an endorsement of Christianity."
Barnard said the highway association downplays the significance of the cross, claiming it is a secular symbol.
"There's no question at all that these highway patrol troopers should be honored," Barnard said. "We should all pause and thank them. But that can be done in a way that does not emphasize religion."
The group is seeking the removal of the crosses and one dollar in monetary damages.
U.S. District Judge David Sam recently heard arguments in the case and will rule soon on the legality of the crosses.