December 2011 Church & State | People & Events

The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 31 announced that it will not hear an appeal of a Utah case dealing with the display of crosses along highways, bringing the contentious legal action to a close.

The case, Utah Highway Patrol Association v. American Atheists, centered on a series of 12-foot-by-6-foot crosses that were erected as memorials to members of the highway patrol who died in the line of duty. The religious symbols, featuring the official logo of the highway patrol, were erected with government approval, leading American Atheists to challenge the displays in court.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling in August 2010, said that the sectarian displays violate church-state separation. The three-judge panel noted that observers were likely to see the large symbols, put up by the Utah Highway Patrol Association with the approval of state officials, as government preference for Christianity.

“Here, we conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity,” the court said. “The memorials use the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and they do so standing alone (as opposed to it being part of some sort of display involving other symbols). That cross conspicuously bears the imprimatur of a state entity, the [Utah Highway Patrol], and is found primarily on public land.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a right-wing Catholic legal group, appealed to the Supreme Court. A host of Religious Right groups joined the fray, bombarding the high court with petitions imploring the justices to take the case.

The Alliance Defense Fund went so far as to argue that the cross, which is universally recognized as the unifying symbol of Christianity, in this case could be seen as secular. The ADF asserted that the crosses “convey the nonreligious messages of individualized commemoration and roadway safety.”

The justices refused the case in a one-line order.

Justice Clarence Thomas, however, dissented from the court’s decision not to intervene. Thomas penned a 19-page dissent criticizing the Supreme Court’s church-state rulings. He also accused the court of being inconsistent in cases dealing with religious symbols on public property.

Thomas asserted that the court’s decisions in this area “have gone hopelessly awry” and have led to confusion in lower courts. The result, he argued, is that religion is being purged from the public sphere.

But Thomas didn’t stop there. He went on to say that the First Amendment’s religious liberty provisions apply only to the federal government. His view runs counter to the position held by the overwhelming majority of legal scholars, who say that passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 means that state and local governments must also abide by the First Amendment.