Disclaimers now on roadside crosses, but atheist group says it's not enough
MURRAY — Every time Brian Hutchings drives by the Utah Highway Patrol's Murray headquarters just off of I-15, he says, 'Hi, Dad" as he passes one of the two memorial crosses.
Now, however, the UHP sticker that was on the cross has been peeled off and a small note has been taped to it that says, "Private memorial — not a state endorsement of any religion."
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state of Utah's appeal of a lower court's ruling that the large, white roadside crosses honoring Department of Public Safety members killed in the line of duty constituted an improper endorsement of religion by the state. The ruling meant all crosses on public land would have to be removed.
Now, the Utah Highway Patrol Association believes it has come up with a solution. The UHPA has taken all of the UHP logos off of the state's 14 crosses and taped on notes stating they are private memorials.
Where the UHP logo was once placed on the cross, there is now only white paint.
But civil rights attorney Brian Barnard, who represents American Atheists Inc. — the group that sued the highway patrol — said even with the logos removed and the disclaimers added, the problem of some of the crosses being on government property still remains.
"Those crosses are on government property only with the permission of Utah officials," he said.
Adding a disclaimer to the crosses does not change the ruling of the court, but "simply generates more litigation and costs more taxpayers money in attorney fees."
Barnard said disclaimers had been attempted in similar situations in other states and failed. The disclaimers are too small to be read from a car on the freeway traveling 65 mph, he said. And "a reasonable observer seeing the Roman cross on the front lawn of a UHP office will see an improper connection between the state of Utah and Christianity."
The president of Salt Lake Valley Atheists, Richard Andrews, agreed that a small disclaimer note would not suffice.
"The state is already paying $300,000 in legal fees. I think they're just prompting more litigation by trying to satisfy that," he said. "It's not the UHPA that needs to comply, it's the UHP that needs to comply."
The UHP said it has also had offers from people to help buy land to make it private property.
But Barnard said that also had been tried in other states, and purchasing "postage stamp sized pieces of land" also would not work. "A private plot of land in the middle of government land still gives the impression of government support," he said.
Barnard said UHP troopers should be honored with a symbol that is "inclusive of all Utahns."
Wednesday, KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright held a town hall meeting to discuss the issue of roadside crosses. During the broadcast, family members of some of the honored troopers said when they see the roadside crosses, they don't see a religious symbol.
"It's a symbol of sacrifice. That's why they chose the cross because it's a symbol of sacrifice," said Hutchings.
In 1976, Hutchings' father, Robert Hutchings, was working for the Utah Department of Public Safety. He was working undercover on a drug investigation when the target of the investigation turned and fired a shotgun at him. Before he died from his injuries, Hutchings was able to return fire and kill the man who shot him.
Taking the UHP logo off the cross bothers Brian Hutchings.
"It does a little bit because now it doesn't signify what he did, what he was," said the 40-year-old Hutchings. "It's difficult to see it painted over."
Not only was the UHP logo taken off of Hutchings' cross, but the plaque talking about who he was and what he did was vandalized and is now missing. The UHP said vandalisms of the roadside crosses has increased since the court's ruling.
Andrea Augenstein's husband, UHP trooper Dan Harris, was killed in Parleys Canyon in 1982. She said for anyone to think the crosses are more than just a way to remember someone who served the people "is offensive to me."
"The cross has come to represent anyone who suffers or has sacrificed something," said Matheson Harris, Dan Harris' son.
Of the 14 crosses, 10 are on public property.
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