A Denver federal appeals court will today hear arguments on whether privately-funded memorial crosses honoring fallen troopers in Utah violate the Establishment Clause.
A group of atheists, known as American Atheists, contend in their suit that steel memorial crosses erected by the Utah Highway Patrol Association (UHPA) on state land constitute an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
In November 2007, a federal judge ruled in favor of the UHPA and the Utah Highway Patrol, declaring that memorial crosses erected along Utah highways to honor fallen state troopers communicate a secular, non-religious message and do not violate the Constitution.
The case, American Atheists v. Davenport, will be heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit beginning 1 p.m. Mountain Time today.
The UHPA, which was granted a motion in 2006 to intervene in the case, will be represented by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund.
"One person’s agenda shouldn’t diminish the sacrifice made by the Utah highway patrol officers and their families," said Bryon Babione, senior counsel of ADF. "Individualized private memorials are not an establishment of religion. The families of the fallen should be allowed to honor their loved ones as they see fit."
Luke W. Goodrich, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed an amicus brief in support of UHPA, will argue how the ruling might affect memorials in other states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.
"Any privately-erected, religious memorials on government property in those states could be vulnerable to a court challenge," states the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "This includes historical descansos in New Mexico. Other states could be affected the same way because the Tenth Circuit’s ruling would be persuasive, but not binding, authority for courts in those states."
According to the Becket Fund, the Utah memorial case will test the boundaries set forth by the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the right of Pleasant Grove City in Utah to permit a Ten Commandments monument while rejecting a display from a small religious group called Summum.
The Summum case, according to the Becket Fund, sets the "standard for deciding when permanent monuments are government speech, and when they are private speech. Two of the three judges in the original Summum panel are hearing this appeal, and the lawyer for Summum is also the lawyer for American Atheists."
U.S. District Judge David Sam said in his 2007 ruling that "it is not the place of law or government, using Establishment Clause jurisprudence, to exhibit hostility toward religion."
The 12-foot crosses erected by UHPA feature the UHP logo, the name and badge number of the trooper and a plaque reading a biography of the fallen trooper.
American Atheists said it would prefer the memorial displays to be either an American flag or a tombstone.