Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

In the news: Utah pays $388K to resolve roadside-crosses case

I just found this article today on the firstamendmentcenter.org site under the Religion subheading.  I’m fascinated by initiatives such as this to remove spontaneous shrines from American roadsides using First Amendment (Freedom of Religion) arguments.  I’m still thinking about how exactly to approach this issue.  There are so many different facets to consider!  I’ll be working on it for the next few days and hopefully a good post will be the result.  Stay tuned…

UTAH PAYS $388K TO RESOLVE ROADSIDE-CROSSES CASE

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WIRE REPORT
Monday, February 20, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is paying nearly $400,000 to resolve a lawsuit over roadside crosses honoring Utah troopers killed in the line of duty, officials said Feb. 17.

The settlement forced the state and the Utah Highway Patrol Association to remove 11 Roman crosses along state highways and roads.

The trooper association has taken down the crosses and plans to move them off roadsides and rest stops to nearby private land with the owners’ permission. It also must remove UHP logos from the symbols.

The lawsuit was filed by American Atheists Inc. and three of its Utah members in 2005.

Utah paid $1 to settle the case, but the Utah Attorney General’s office confirmed Feb. 17 it is paying about $388,000 in legal fees for the atheists.

Utah and the troopers’ association “fought tooth and nail saying these crosses aren’t really religious symbols and they should stay,” Brian Barnard, a civil rights lawyer who represented American Atheists, said. “They wouldn’t entertain any discussion about compromising over six years. We offered repeatedly to try and resolve it short of full litigation.”

At first, the atheists’ lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge David Sam in Salt Lake City, but a three-judge panel from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that the highway crosses represented a state endorsement of Christianity.

State attorneys appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but justices declined to hear the case last year.

Barnard said the $388,000 pays his legal fees but that the state and trooper association probably spent as much money and time trying to defeat the lawsuit.

The Utah Highway Patrol Association maintains the memorials and is repainting them to remove official logos. It was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., group that describes itself as a defender of religious freedom.

“We were prepared to fight this battle to the very end because it was very important,” said Byron Babione,the group’s senior counsel.

Babione said troopers were unhappy with the settlement and wanted to keep the crosses in place — without logos, but with a disclaimer saying Utah wasn’t endorsing any religion.

State lawyers rejected that request, saying it risked more litigation, he said.

Barnard’s legal fees were authorized by Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature, but Barnard said he was given a check on Feb. 15 that fell about $8,000 short of the agreed figure.

Utah is writing a second check to cover the difference, said Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s spokesman, Paul Murphy.

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3 thoughts on “In the news: Utah pays $388K to resolve roadside-crosses case

  1. Hm. this is a difficult one. But ultimately, I don’t see how the crosses can be offensive. Christianity is a religion, maybe not a perfect one, but it is not a group that actively promotes hate or violence etc. They are in a public space, and surely people can commemorate death in whatever way they choose as long as it is not blatantly offensive in some way, and a cross is a universal symbol of one religion(s)

  2. I have a couple of questions. Did these officers die on the highways or very nearby? If one of them were Jewish, Muslim, or atheist, would they have a “cross” or symbol to represent that? What if in the future officers had to declare how they personally wanted to be represented if they were to die in the line of duty. In this way we could see this as a personal declaration of faith perhaps and not a state’s or government’s presumed or default state sanctioned religion. No one in this post has said anything about the dead officers themselves.

    Another thought: some states, counties, cities will dedicate a highway or some other public place to remember a fallen soldier or law enforcement officer. The “Somebody Important” Memorial Highway.

  3. VL Nyitray on said:

    You are so right: there are so many factors involved. The trouble arises from the conflicting clauses of the First Amendment: non-establishment (tied to the separation of “church” and state) and free exercise. The cross appears to be a Christian reference and thus the expenditure of state funds to maintain the memorials might violate the establishment clause. But it is argued that–in the context of a spontaneous shrine–it’s a symbol of death that is marked in an historically-determined and culturally-recognizable form and thus does not necessarily convey “Christianity” to viewers but just “someone died here.”

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