One day after the nation paid tribute to fallen members of the military, an atheist group argued before a federal judge that the placement of memorial crosses on Utah highways to honor fallen Highway Patrol troopers is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge David Sam heard arguments Tuesday from lawyers in a controversial case where American Atheists Inc is battling Utah and the state's Highway Patrol Association over 13 memorial crosses erected along Utah highways.
Each cross is placed on or near the place where events occurred resulting in the death of an officer.
American Atheists contends that the 12-foot crosses are religious symbols that should be removed from state property because they illegally constitute an endorsement of religion by the Highway Patrol Association.
Brian Barnard, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, argued before the court that any "reasonable observer" knows that the cross is the "preeminent symbol of Christianity," representing the death of Jesus Christ.
He also added that putting a Highway Patrol logo on them "is literally a stamp of approval" by the government of Christianity.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Roberts said the crosses in this context are not religious symbols but secular symbols that represent "death and remembrance."
He told the judge that the memorials honor the sacrifice of the deceased troopers and serves as a reminder to drivers to be careful.
Roberts argued that crosses aren't always imbued with religious meaning, pointing to telephone poles and road markers which can form the shape of a cross but are permitted on government property.
Following arguments, the judge the said he did not find that the government to be "entangled" with a religious issue because the UHP Association is not considered a religious organization.
Sam said he would issue a written opinion soon.
Both lawyers from each side say they will appeal the decision if they lose the suit, which started in 2005.
Family members of fallen troopers and others who are a part of the Utah Highway Patrol Association have also joined the case, after being granted a motion to intervene. They are represented by attorneys from the Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund and an affiliated local attorney in Salt Lake City.
ADF senior legal counsel Byron Babione joined local attorney Frank Mylar in attending the hearing.
Babione defended the constitutionality of the crosses in a statement Monday, saying the memorials are not paid by taxpayers and were constructed by volunteers and materials donated by local businesses.
According to ADF, a ruling in favor of American Atheists could place other cross memorials placed by private citizens in legal jeopardy.