The U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 Monday to stay out of the First Amendment fight brewing over crosses being placed on public land in Utah to honor fallen state troopers.
The 12-foot high crosses were erected along highways in Utah and bore the names of state troopers who have died in the line of duty.
The memorials were paid for by the Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private organization, but were placed on public land.
That prompted a 2005 lawsuit from American Atheists Inc., a Texas-based organization with members in Utah. The group alleged the crosses were “improper mixing of government and religion,” the AP reported.
In 2010, a federal appeals court in Denver agreed with that claim.
The court ordered the crosses removed and deemed them unconstitutional, claiming it was an endorsement of Christianity by Utah.
Now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case, it will now head back to a federal judge in Salt Lake City, who will order Utah to either remove the crosses or move them to private land.
The atheist group that brought the original suit maintains that the target of the court case was the religious symbols not the memorial to the troopers.
"We hope and expect the [Utah Highway Patrol Association] to not just take down the crosses, but actually replace them with suitable memorials," David Silverman, president of American Atheists Inc., said to The Salt Lake Tribune. "We want the fallen troopers to be honored. ... These people died serving their country and they should be honored in a way that upholds the Constitution they died protecting."
The controversy comes from the mixed messages the Supreme Court decision gives states.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, said the move by the Supreme Court “rendered the constitutionality of displays of religious imagery on government property anyone’s guess.”
No state funds were used to build the crosses and no state officials mandated that crosses be used. Family members decided what memorial design would best honor the fallen trooper.
Both state officials and the Utah Highway Patrol Association maintained the cross is a symbol of death and not solely a religious endorsement.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
“We conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity,” Senior Circuit Judge David Ebel wrote in the decision. “The memorials use the preeminent symbol of Christianity.”