Ravell Call, Deseret News
MURRAY — A state lawmaker wants the Utah Legislature to find a way to keep roadside crosses honoring fallen highway patrol troopers from being removed from public land.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, intends to propose legislation to blunt a court ruling that bans the large white crosses because they constitute an improper endorsement of religion by the state.
"If I have anything to do with it and if the legislators in this state have anything to do with it, these crosses are not coming down," Wimmer said Wednesday outside the Utah Highway Patrol office where two of the markers are posted.
Wimmer, a candidate for Utah's new 4th Congressional District seat, appeared at a news conference with the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian interest group based in Washington, D.C. The FRC stopped in Salt Lake City as part of its "Values Voter Bus Tour."
"What we're seeing now is disrespect," said Tom McClusky, FRC senior vice president.
The quest to save the crosses comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal Monday to hear Utah's appeal of a lower court decision prohibiting the roadside memorials. The state and the Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private entity that pays for and maintains the markers, had requested a discretionary review of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
American Atheists Inc. sued the UHP and the UHP association in 2005, arguing that the 14 large white crosses, all but four of which sit on state land, are an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. A panel of three appeals courts judges reversed the federal court in Utah and ruled in favor of New Jersey-based American Atheists, requiring the state to remove the crosses.
"The atheists who want these crosses taken down and who think this fight is over are wrong. This fight is not over. This fight has just begun," Wimmer said.
Wimmer did not provide details of his proposed bills. But he suggested the state could turn a piece of land over to the UHP association "so then they could put up whatever they would like."
American Atheists attorney Brian Barnard said the overarching goal is to honor the troopers, which he says can be done without a religious symbol exclusive to one faith.
"Rather than continuing a legal fight and incurring more legal expenses, a new shape should be quickly found that is inclusive and universal. That will allow these monuments to remain in their current locations. Some clever new law is not needed," he said.
McClusky said the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to clarify disparate lower court decisions about religious symbols on government property.
"I think the lack of clarity is exactly why we need the court to address this and the (Utah) Legislature to address this," he said.
The 10th Circuit's ruling, he said, could lead to the removal of crosses on headstones in Arlington National Cemetery and crosses honoring fallen World War II soldiers in Normandy, France.
Barnard said there's a difference between roadside and cemetery crosses.
"The routine use of crosses and other religious symbols in cemeteries, even government-owned cemeteries, differs greatly from a cross prominently displayed in a nontraditional place such as in front of a government building or at a highway rest stop," Barnard said.
"Government does not endorse nor support religion by allowing religious monuments and symbols in government cemeteries where by longstanding tradition and culture they are accepted."
McClusky said the FRC has started a petition to deliver to Congress and state legislatures urging them to pass resolutions supporting the effort to keep the crosses.
The group earlier filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Utah's effort to get the case before the Supreme Court. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both R-Utah, joined the brief.
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