In 1998, a nonprofit called the Utah Highway Patrol Association with a mission to serve troopers and their families came up with an idea to honor their state’s fallen. Let’s build them memorials, they said. Let’s erect 12-foot high crosses with six-foot long cross bars that include the fallen troopers’ names, dates of death, pictures, and biographical information, and let’s put them along the very roads they patrolled so all who drive by will, at a glance, see the sacrifice and understand the significance.
And the significance, to the UHPA, was four-fold: to remind other troopers that one of their own gave life in service; to remind travelers that a trooper died while making the roads safe for all; to extend honor to the surviving families; and to promote safe driving.
Why a cross? The two UHPA officials who designed the memorial said “only a cross could effectively convey these weighty messages instantaneously” to those driving by at speeds of 55 miles-per-hour. On top of that, family members approved.
The memorials were erected, initially, on private property. The initiative grew, however, and the UHPA asked the state for permission to use public property on highway rights-of way near state roads and rest areas. The state, meanwhile, expressly said that use of the public land was not tantamount to approval or disapproval of the marker – specifically, the cross. And for years, the memorials stood, quiet and dignified reminders of the ultimate sacrifice of a few. Both Boy Scouts and local businesses donated time and money to make sure the memorials wouldn’t fade, physically, as the years progressed.
Then came the atheists – in this case, two. Shortly after, the lawsuit was filed, with the help of an out-of-state organization, the American Atheists, Inc., of Texas, that alleged the display violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“[I’ve] occasionally altered [my] travel route or [have] not stopped at a particular rest stop to avoid contact with the crosses,” said one of the plaintiffs, according to court documents. “[I’ve been] forced to alter [my] behavior to avoid contact with the display.”
Really? Is it that painful to see a cross?
Here’s the real question: If one holds no belief in something, why would the symbols of that belief be such a threat? After all, adults who don’t believe in Santa Clause don’t get up-in-arms every time December rolls around. They don’t demand Santa displays be torn from shop windows or from public courthouse squares or from county lawns because, my gosh, Santa doesn’t exist and it’s offensive that the government is promoting belief in Santa.
Why can’t atheists just do the same? One has to wonder if perhaps, deep inside where the spirit they don’t believe in resides, is a small doubt that nags and clouds and compels them to remove uncomfortable reminders of their own personal conflicts from view.
On Aug. 18, the atheists won their case. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that the memorials convey the message the state endorses one religion over another.