Steve Nagy/AP

Roadside Memorials Spark Debate Over Religious Symbolism in Utah

March 11, 2009 04:15 PM
by Emily Coakley
A lawsuit challenging roadside crosses that mark troopers deaths in Utah offers a new twist on an old debate over such tributes.

Crosses as a “Secular Symbol”

This week lawyers argued before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over roadside crosses honoring Utah state troopers. Roadside memorials are a controversial and emotional subject in many places throughout the world. What makes the Utah case different, though, is the court is deciding whether the trooper’s crosses are a religious symbol, and if so, should they be on public land.

Most controversies surrounding roadside memorials concern their mere presence.

The group American Atheists sued to have the crosses removed. A private organization—Utah Highway Patrol Association—paid for them. The crosses are 12 feet tall, and along with the highway patrol logo, have a “small plaque with a photo and short biography of the fallen trooper, as well as the trooper’s name, rank, badge number and year of death,” The Associated Press reports.

The court’s decision has implications for similar memorials in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado.

During the arguments, judges questioned whether non-Christians used crosses to signify death, and expressed concerns that if a family requested it, the association wouldn’t use symbols from other religions.
“If it was a Jewish or a Muslim trooper, that person wouldn’t get it. That’s where I have a problem,” said Appeals Court Judge David Ebel, according to AP.

The judges did not rule on the matter at the hearing, and it’s not clear when an opinion will be issued.

A cross is also at the center of another long-running legal battle in neighboring California. Last month the Supreme Court announced plans to hear a case over an eight-foot cross that stands in the Mojave National Preserve. A Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter put up a wooden cross and plaque in 1934 to honor soldiers who died in World War I, according to an article in The Dallas Morning News. Almost a decade ago, a former National Park Service employee and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to have it removed.

Congress had given the land where the cross sits to the VFW, but “the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the transfer,” the Morning News article said. The Bush administration appealed the federal court ruling.

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Background: Balancing emotions, public safety

Though roadside tributes are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, many municipalities have had to deal with them.

The Pell City, Ala., city council this week passed an ordinance prohibiting roadside memorials, but will allow families to adopt mile-long stretches of highway for a lost loved one.

“Officials say roadside memorials pose potential safety hazards to the traveling public and the memorials interfere with the maintenance of the public right-of-ways,” the Daily Home newspaper reported.

A sign that meets state and federal standards can be erected, but the family or friends have to pay for it. According to the Daily Home, those adopting the roadways must also clean them at least three times a year.

Efforts to remove roadside memorials have been met with outrage in some places. In Derbyshire County, England, a man who lost his son in a 1992 accident vowed to replace a roadside memorial if the county banned them.

“I shall replace it again as soon as I know it’s been removed because to us it’s very special. That’s where Mark had his last breath on this earth,” said Derek Storer in a BBC interview.

The Derbyshire County Council on Tuesday approved a plan in which roadside memorials would be removed after three months, the BBC reported. Those tributes won’t be destroyed, but will be kept until the families can take them. Council members said they sympathized with family members, but were concerned the memorials distracted drivers and put the people who tended to them at risk.

The exact origin of roadside memorials isn’t clear. According to a 2006 Wyoming Tribune Eagle article, they started appearing on American roads about 30 years ago.

“It’s simply not a continuous North American practice. I remember when no one would have imagined doing anything like that,” said Lucy Bregman, a Temple University religion professor, according to the Tribune Eagle.

The article mentions that some believe the practice was a Mediterranean or Hispanic custom, and describes a Mexican tradition in which a stone was used on the side of the road to mark where mourners, who were carrying a casket from the church to the burial plot on their shoulders, stopped to rest.

Roadside memorials aren’t considered a bad thing everywhere, though. In Albuquerque this month, a television station reported that during construction of Interstate 25, crews put concrete barriers around a cross to make sure it isn’t damaged. A New Mexico Department of Transportation told radio KRQE that the crews were doing it as a courtesy.

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