A federal judge ruled Tuesday that memorial crosses erected along Utah highways to honor fallen state troopers communicate a secular, non-religious message and do not violate the Constitution.
U.S. District Judge David Sam ruled in favor of the Utah Highway Patrol Association (UHPA), which was facing a lawsuit from American Atheists Inc. over 13 memorial crosses.
In a 28-page opinion, the judge said he found "no Establishment Clause violation of either the First Amendment of the United States Constitution nor Article I of the Utah Constitution."
Sam stated in the ruling that he agreed that the memorial crosses which American Atheists sought to remove deliver a secular message that a patrolman died or was mortally wounded at a particular location.
He also added, "It is not the place of law or government, using Establishment Clause jurisprudence, to exhibit hostility toward religion."
Attorney Barry Hodge of the National Legal Foundation, who represented the UHPA, praised the ruling.
"This ruling demonstrates that a small group of atheists with an agenda cannot determine how the families of Utah troopers can honor their dead," said Hodge in a statement Tuesday.
"It's ridiculous that a small group of offended atheists would seek to stop the families of slain troopers from honoring their loved ones as they see fit," stated Byron Babione, senior legal counsel of Alliance Defense Fund, which also represented the defendants.
In the ruling, the court rebuffed plaintiffs' arguments that the placement of crosses on state land constituted an endorsement of religion by the Highway Patrol Association.
"The undisputed facts and evidence before this court demonstrate that no public money or property was appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction as a result of the UHPA memorial cross program," wrote Sam.
According to ADF, the memorial crosses were not paid by taxpayers and were constructed by volunteers and materials donated by local businesses.
"Furthermore, as stated above, the UHPA is not a religious organization so any incidental support offered to this program by the State Defendants cannot be construed to be 'support of any ecclesiastical establishment,'" the judge added.
Each of the 12-foot crosses feature the UHP logo, the name and badge number of the trooper and a plaque reading a biography of the fallen trooper.
Salt Lake attorney Brian Barnard, who represented the Atheists, contended that the cross "undoubtedly symbolizes the death of a Christian," reported the Salt Lake Tribune.
He said his clients would support an American flag or a tombstone to mark their death to mark the deaths of troopers instead and plan to appeal the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
UHP Lt. Lee Perry, president of the UHPA, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the group's intent was never "to push religion off on anyone," but honor a debt to the troopers' families.
"One of our missions is to take care of the widows and orphans of fallen troopers," said Perry. "We want to let the families know they are still part of the department. They are not here physically, but they are always in our minds."