Utah Crosses Unconstitutional, Appeals Court Holds

A series of 12-foot crosses erected on public land in Utah violates the Constitution, according to a federal appeals court.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Aug. 18 that the sectarian displays honoring deceased troopers violate church-state separation. The three-judge panel said observers were likely to see the large symbols, put up by the Utah Highway Patrol Association with the approval of state officials, as government preference for Christianity.

“Here, we conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity,” the court said. “The memorials use the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and they do so standing alone (as opposed to it being part of some sort of display involving other symbols). That cross conspicuously bears the imprimatur of a state entity, the [Utah Highway Patrol], and is found primarily on public land.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty worked with the state Department of Transportation and other government agencies to defend the crosses, claiming they were not religious symbols but secular memorials. Other Religious Right groups joined in the case, including the Alliance Defense Fund and Roy Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in American Atheists v. Duncan, urging the judges to recognize the cross as a religious symbol and to uphold the separation of church and state.

In early September, the state Department of Transportation and two other state agencies filed a petition for rehearing by the full 10th Circuit panel.