A federal judge has ruled that some 13 12-foot crosses memorializing fallen Utah Highway Patrol troopers convey a secular, non-religious, meaning and do not violate the U.S. Constitution.

In a win for the Utah Highway Patrol Association against the group American Atheists Inc., U.S. District Judge David Sam held Tuesday that the memorial crosses, found along various highways throughout the state, do not represent a government endorsement of an particular religious belief. Such an endorsement would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"Even classic religious symbols may have various meanings and purposes depending on their context," Sam wrote. "The memorial crosses at issue communicate a secular message, a message that a patrolman died or was mortally wounded at a particular location."

News of the ruling was well met by state troopers. "Obviously we're pleased," said UHPA president Shane Mebker. "The intent all along was to honor the sacrifice of these men for the state." Mebker said he was also pleased that Sam recognized that recognition.

Sam also noted that because the crosses were funded by donations through the Utah Highway Patrol Association, no government money was spent on them. Also, the UHPA is not considered a religious organization and thus the government cannot be seen as legally "entangled" with a religious organization or belief.

Much like the Ten Commandments, Sam said the Latin cross may act as a secular as well as a religious symbol, depending on the context. The reasoning was taken from two U.S. Supreme Court rulings issued recently which held that displays of the Ten Commandments can be on government property as long as its context is historic and not religious in nature.

American Atheists attorney Brian Barnard called Sam's ruling troubling in that the judge held that the cross as a symbol is as secular as the Christmas tree. "Such a holding demeans the cross and those religions which revere it. That vast majority of society today knows exactly and immediately the message a Roman cross conveys. It is not a generic symbol, but the preeminent and exclusive symbol of Christianity," Barnard said.

The legal controversy over the memorial crosses is not over yet. Barnard said American Atheists will ask the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to review the case.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com