Aug 06, 2008

The cross is a Christian symbol and government should not try to use it as a secular memorial marker, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told a federal appeals court.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed today, Americans United and allied religious leaders and organizations take issue with a federal court decision allowing Utah officials to place crosses along highways to memorialize state highway patrol officers who have died in the line of duty.

State officials insisted that the Christian symbol is a secular symbol and can be used regardless of the personal religious beliefs of the officer being honored.

U.S. District Judge David Sam ruled in November of 2007 that the cross is a “secular symbol of death” and held that Utah officials and the Utah Highway Patrol Association can continue to erect the 12-foot crosses.

Americans United is asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the lower court ruling.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said he is offended by the claim that the cross is merely a secular symbol.

“The cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “For the government to claim that the cross is a secular symbol is deeply offensive and betrays a poor understanding of religion and our Constitution.”

In its brief, AU points out that the cross has been tied to Christianity for many centuries.

“In upholding the display of roadside crosses on public land throughout the State of Utah, the district court embraced the State’s characterization of the cross the clearest and most universally recognized marker of Christianity as nothing more than a ‘secular symbol of death,’” asserts the brief. “This conclusion is historically inaccurate, blind to contemporary realities, and offensive to believers and nonbelievers alike.”

The brief in American Atheists, Inc. v. Duncan argues that governmental display of the cross violates the constitutional mandate of government neutrality toward religion.

Joining Americans United on the brief are the Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation, The Interfaith Alliance, the Union for Reform Judaism and Dr. Eugene Fisher, retired associate director, Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The brief was prepared by Evan M. Tager, David M. Gossett and Brian M. Willen of the firm Mayer Brown LLP and by Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and other members of AU’s legal team.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.