A Texas-based atheist group has filed a federal lawsuit against the Utah Highway Patrol and the Utah Department of Transportation, demanding that crosses erected in honor of fallen UHP troopers be removed from highways on the principle of separation of church and state.
In the suit filed in U.S. District court Thursday, American Atheists Inc., a nonprofit Texas corporation with main offices based out of New Jersey, says several of the 12-foot steel crosses memorializing troopers killed in the line of duty are located on public land in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
"It is the government endorsement of religion and of one particular religion," said Mike Rivers, Utah director of American Atheists and one of the plaintiffs. Two other Utah members, Stephen Clark and Richard Andrews, have also joined the suit.
News of the suit spread quickly through the UHP community and among friends and family of fallen troopers. "Generally speaking, the crosses are to memorialize these officers who have given the ultimate sacrifice to the state," UHP spokesman Jeff Nigbur said. Nigbur said a large number of the crosses are located on private property near public highways.
As for the religious symbolism, Nigbur said, the cross symbol was chosen as a general symbol to memorialize the fallen.
"We chose the cross because the cross is the international sign of peace, and it has no religious significance in it," Nigbur said.
"I think that's less than honest," said Salt Lake civil rights attorney Brian Barnard, who represents the atheists.
Barnard said the cross is a symbol of Christianity. He has no objection to memorializing fallen troopers, but Barnard said there has to be a better, non-denominational way to do it.
"I don't think there's any question that these troopers should be honored. They have given the ultimate sacrifice," Barnard said. "They can be honored in a way that doesn't emphasize religion."
As for being on private property, several crosses located by Barnard are actually on government land and he has copies of permits issued by the Utah Department of Transportation that allow the crosses.
UDOT spokesman Tom Hudachko said his department has yet to fully review the suit and did not want to comment on pending litigation.
Todd Royce, former president of the Utah Highway Patrol Association, which helps place the memorial crosses, calls the suit a little late.
"This was years in the working," Royce said. "Some of these crosses have been up for seven or eight years. When we put them up, nobody opposed them."
Lori Lucas-Foster said even replacing the crosses for another symbol at this point would be like tampering with a gravesite. The daughter of a fallen UHP trooper, Lucas-Foster said although her family is traditionally Catholic, they are not very religious.
"To us the symbol is not about religion or a symbol of Christianity. To us, it's a memorial marker for the life that my dad sacrificed for the whole community," she said.
Her father's cross stands off southbound I-15 in Layton. Tom Rettberg was a longtime UHP pilot whose helicopter crashed in Woods Cross on Feb. 11, 2000, while he attempted an emergency maneuver as part of training.
Lucas-Foster and Royce both point out that crosses are used to mark graves at government memorial sites, such as Arlington National Cemetery.
In a statement, Clark said the cross stands for Christianity to the casual observer.
"To so blatantly tie the UHP to religion and to overwhelm the commemoration with a harrowing symbol exclusive to one religion unquestionably violates the doctrine of the separation of church" and state, Clark said.
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