Utah highway crosses get a makeover

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah’s memorial highway crosses have been given a makeover – a move intended to prevent the court-ordered removal of the memorials from state roads, a Utah Highway Patrol Association spokesman said.

Over the last week, the 12-foot-high Roman crosses have been stripped of the brown and gold beehive-shaped logo of the Utah Highway Patrol, association attorney Frank Mylar said.

The 14 crosses – 11 on state land and three on private property – still bear the names of the state troopers they were erected to honor.

“We’re hoping we can keep the memorials as much intact as possible but change them so that it complies with the (court),” Mylar said. “They really feel strongly that without the cross there’s no memorial.”

The American Atheists Inc. and three of its Utah members sued the state over the crosses in 2005, claiming the memorials suggested a state endorsement of Christianity.

Last year, a three-judge panel from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver agreed and ordered the crosses removed. State attorneys appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but justices have declined to hear the case.

On Monday civil rights attorney Brian Barnard asked a Utah federal judge to issue a final order for the cross removal.

The removal of the UHP logo from the crosses doesn’t solve the religious-endorsement problem, Barnard said.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Barnard said. “But the cross still remains a poignant religious symbol and it’s in a prominent place on government property where no other organization or individual is given permission to have a similar display.”

Utah Department of Transportation rules bar the placement of memorials or other signs along highways for safety reasons.

The atheists agree in principle with honoring fallen law enforcement officers but would prefer the memorials were nonreligious symbols, such as an obelisk, Barnard said.

Mylar said he’ll notify U.S. District Magistrate Judge David Sam of the changes the association has made to the memorials, including adding a disclaimer statement to each cross that states the structure is not meant to represent a state endorsement of religion. The disclaimer is sized so motorists could read it as they travel past the crosses on Utah highways, Mylar said.

The two men who launched the memorial cross effort in 1998 have said they selected the Roman cross because the image of a cross can simultaneously convey a message of death, remembrance, honor, gratitude and sacrifice.

Barnard doubts the posting of a disclaimer will be effective.

“The courts have not generally upheld disclaimers ... maybe if it was something where people normally approached on foot,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to read this going by at 65 miles per hour.”