American Legion Defends Utah’s ‘Illegal’ Crosses

The American Legion, a leading U.S. veterans’ organization, has stepped forward to defend 13 crosses on Utah’s public highways that were declared “unconstitutional” in August of 2010.

The announcement comes just days before Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering soldiers who have fought for American freedom. Now, the American Legion is standing up for the memorial crosses dedicated to fallen Utah Highway Patrol personnel.

In 1998, two members of the Utah Highway Patrol Association began erecting crosses close to the roadside spots where officers have died.

Atheist and humanist organizations have taken the crosses to court as a violation of separation of church and state because, even though they’re privately funded, they are on public property. The case is called American Atheists v. Davenport.

At first, a federal judge overturned a district court ruling against the crosses. But last August, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and agreed with the district court that the crosses represent an “unconstitutional government endorsement” of the Christian faith above other beliefs.

The court’s decision was largely based on the fact that these crosses are many times larger than normal roadside cross-shaped death markers.

An American Atheists blog responding to attacks as to why they hated crosses called the memorial monuments “highly offensive,” and that for crosses to represent troopers who could possibly be of another faith or no faith is insulting.

But according to a Christian Science Monitor article, the families of each fallen Utah trooper were consulted before the erection of the crosses and no one objected. A photo of each trooper is also used at the site.

The American Legion will endeavor to take the 2010 decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a veterans group won another 2010 case, the Mojave Desert Cross case, which had meandered through the courts for years. In that case (legally called Salazar v. Buono), Justice Kennedy wrote in the court’s decision that the government is not obliged to avoid all public acknowledgement of religion’s role in society.

Lawyers from the Liberty Institute have filed a brief on behalf of the American Legion in the crosses’ defense, explaining the American Legion is concerned that the ruling against the Utah Highway Patrol crosses could eventually be used against all cross memorials that represent fallen American soldiers.

Sources:

American Atheists v. Davenport, at Denver Law Review, 4/4/11.

“The Utah crosses: Why Attack a Memorial?” American Atheists blog, 11/3/10.

“Roadside crosses for fallen Utah police unconstitutional, court rules,” Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor, 8/18/10.

Liberty Institute legal brief on behalf of American Legion.

“Veterans defending religious, offensive memorials,” Charlie Butts, One News Now, 5/27/11

Salazar v. Buono at SupremeCourt.gov.