Sunday, November 20, 2011

Messages of Death and Sacrifice


On Monday, October 31st, 2011, the Supreme Court did not grant the petition for certiorari for the two cases, Utah Highway Patrol Association v. American Atheists and Davenport v. American Atheists, both which pertained to standards for judging public displays of religious symbols. In this 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the Utah Highway Patrol Association to display donated crosses along interstate 15 in commemoration for patrolman who died in the line of duty, each of which are represented by individual crosses with a brief bibliography and picture for each trooper. Earlier in 2005, American Atheists Inc. and three Utah state citizens sued Utah, contesting that the memorials conveyed state endorsement of Christianity and was therefore in violation of the Establishment Clause, reasoning which was upheld by the federal appeals court in 2010.

Justice Thomas stated in a rare 19-page dissent to the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the case, “today the Court rejects an opportunity to provide clarity to Establishment Clause jurisprudence in shambles.” Consequently, the Court has not examined the endorsement test’s consistency with the 10th Amendment which states that jurisdiction not given to Congress belongs to the states. Since Utah has made no law that infringes on the rights of the citizens of the United States by putting up memorial crosses to fallen state troopers, nor have citizens been directly coerced, Congress has no right to “prohibi[t] the free exercise [of religion]” by forcing the removal of these crosses.

The sizes of the crosses, in addition to the presence of the Utah Highway Patrol shield on the crosses, were the primary factors in deciding that the memorial could be perceived by a “reasonable observer” that the government is endorsing Christianity by the federal appeals court, thereby evoking precedent from Lynch v. Donnelly (1984). According to the appeals court, the crosses, each twelve feet tall with six-foot crossbars, conveys “a message of endorsement, proselytization, and aggrandizement of religion that is far different from the more humble spirit of small roadside crosses.” Given that these crosses are located along a highway, with cars passing at high speeds, one could argue that the memorials should be this large to honor the troopers who died in service to the state. The lower court also found that the structures used “the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity” and “conspicuously bears the imprimatur of a state entity, the UHP [Utah Highway Patrol].” In the previous week, the Utah Highway Patrol Association had removed the UHP’s insignia in an attempt to prevent the court-ordered removal of the 14 monuments. Therefore, the appeals court’s concern about a “reasonable observer’s” fear of preferential treatment toward Christians by state-funded officers should not be a burden to the state.

Furthermore, since the Utah Highway Patrol Association had removed the UHP’s logo from the crosses, the government should not discriminate against the organization, that used private funds to erect non-invasive memorials. The placement of 11 of these crosses on public land however, is contentious because by allowing these large crosses, the state may be construed as providing Christianity preferential treatment and a means of evangelizing state highway drivers. Yet family members of deceased troopers must give permission to have the memorial erected and are offered the opportunity to request a different symbol, thus, the state is technically neutral toward religion. Similarly, the Department of Veterans Affairs at Arlington National Cemetery currently offers 39 authorized faith emblems that can be placed on gravestones. If Arlington National Cemetery is permitted to determine which symbols can be “authorized” to be placed on markers, then why should the Utah Highway Patrol Association not be granted the same right?

Nonetheless, in 2006, the Utah legislature passed a joint resolution that declared the cross is a secular symbol of death. The cross is still, as the federal appeals court attested in 2010, “the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity.” The cross, which was selected by the Utah Highway Patrol Association, is an unavoidable allusion to the crucifix. Both symbolize death, remembrance, sacrifice, honor, and gratitude for those who died to protect innocent people. Though these Christian underpinnings cannot be removed from a cross, this memorial, with a secular purpose to commemorate the sacrifices of state troopers, does not establish religion.


6 comments:

Harry R. said...

While I recognize the similarities between the crosses in question and the faith emblems present at Arlington National Cemetery, I feel that a reasonable observer would not view the images in the same way. When one visits Arlington, they know that the markers represent the dead and that the inscriptions as well as the symbols relate directly to the fallen. However, a motorist driving down the Utah highway at sixty miles per hour would not necessarily know the intent of the crosses. They would see large crosses facing the highway which could easily be interpreted as state endorsement of religion.

Marissa V said...

I also agree with Harry in this case. Although it is not intended to have a religious intent, it can still be misinterpreted. This could be viewed as establishment of religion to the many uninformed people passing by. Instead perhaps there could be a more secular form of memorial placed in this space, one that does not have a religious background associated with it.

Ashley R said...

I agree with Kathryn that the state has not established religion. The state is simply reaching out to affected families and asking if there is any way in which they would like to memorialize deceased family members. The argument that the crosses establish religion because of their large size is faulty. Either a cross establishes religion or it does not – the size of the symbol does not matter. Simply displaying religious symbols does not establish religion because the government is not coercing anyone to act in a particular way. Utah has not violated the Establishment Clause.

Ashley R said...

I agree with Kathryn that the state has not established religion. The state is simply reaching out to affected families and asking if there is any way in which they would like to memorialize deceased family members. The argument that the crosses establish religion because of their large size is faulty. Either a cross establishes religion or it does not – the size of the symbol does not matter. Simply displaying religious symbols does not establish religion because the government is not coercing anyone to act in a particular way. Utah has not violated the Establishment Clause.

Casey K said...

I agree with Harry here. If one were to look at the large crosses from the perspective of an average driver, it is easy to see how these crosses can be viewed as the state endorsing religion. The average driver would not know all of the historical context of the crosses, , when driving past these crosses without that information I think that the driver could definitely mistake the crosses for symbols of the state endorsing religion. Since I think that the reasonable observer would see this as state endorsing religion, I cannot say that the crosses are constitutional.

BryceS said...

I agree with Kathryn and personally believe this ruling inconsistent and incorrect. This does not establish religion nor endorse it as these crosses are memorials, which is an understanding completely within reason. Furthermore, if the Utah legislation did indeed declare the cross as a secular symbol of death, then this reasoning completely contradicts that previous declaration. In response to Harry, I would argue that whenever a driver passes a cross(s) on a highway, 95% of the time they are aware that it represents a memorial of some sort (in many cases as a result of car accidents). In my opinion, when a driver passes a number of crosses on a highway, I doubt the first thing they’re going to think is that the state is endorsing religion. Even if someone does think that, the crosses are placed there as a memorial for patrolmen who died in the line of duty. I find it offensive that people would remove these memorials simply because of what someone may perceive, when indeed that perception is not the case.