* State, highway patrol group appealed, defended memorials
* Atheists sued, said Latin cross is Christian symbol
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court
Monday declined to consider whether roadside memorial crosses
to honor fallen state highway troopers violated church-state
separation, staying out of a dispute over religious symbols on
The justices refused to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals
court that the 14 large cross memorials erected along Utah
public roads conveyed the message to most passing motorists of
government endorsement of Christianity.
The Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private group that
organized the placement of the crosses to commemorate troopers
killed in the line of duty, and state officials appealed to the
They said the appeals court used the wrong legal test in
deciding whether a display with religious imagery violated the
U.S. Constitution's ban on government endorsement of religion.
They supported a more lenient test that allows such displays.
The monuments, first erected in 1998, were paid for with
private funds and all but three are on public property.
The Supreme Court rejected the appeals in a brief order.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. He said the court
passed up an opportunity to provide clarity to an area of
jurisprudence that has "rendered the constitutionality of
displays of religious imagery on government property anyone's
The Supreme Court for years has been closely divided and
has struggled with cases involving what religious displays can
be put on public property.
In the most recent decision, the court ruled by a 5-4 vote
in 2010 that a federal judge erred in ordering the removal of a
large Christian cross intended to serve as a war memorial in a
remote part of the California desert.
The court in 2005 ruled that putting framed copies of the
Ten Commandments in county courthouses was unconstitutional but
allowed a commandments monument as part of larger display on
the Texas Capitol grounds.
The challenge to the Utah crosses was brought by a
Texas-based group called American Atheists, which sued to
remove the memorials from state property.
It said the Latin cross has been a traditional Christian
symbol, representing the story of Jesus Christ's death and
resurrection, and that the memorials conveyed the message that
the state endorsed Christianity.
The 12-foot-high white crosses, with
6-foot horizontal crossbars, have the fallen
trooper's name, rank and badge number printed in larger letters
on the crossbar.
The memorials also have a small plaque with a picture of
the trooper, some biographical information and the state
highway patrol insignia.
The cases are Utah Highway Patrol Association v. American
Atheists, No. 10-1276, and Lance Davenport v. American
Atheists, No. 10-1297.
(Editing by Bill Trott)
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