Final settlement reached over Utah highway crosses

Sunday , January 15, 2012 - 6:50 AM

Contributed

SALT LAKE CITY-- Groups representing Utah state troopers and atheists have reached a final settlement in a lawsuit over 14 roadside crosses honoring troopers killed in the line of duty.

Under the agreement submitted Friday to U.S. District Court Judge David Sam of Salt Lake City, the Utah Highway Patrol Association must remove 10 of the white, 12-foot-tall crosses from public land by Feb. 26 and move them to private property.

All 14 of the memorials, including four already on private property, also must have the UHP beehive-shaped insignia removed, The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News reported.

Under the agreement, the state also must pay American Atheists Inc. $388,000 for attorneys' fees.

The New Jersey-based group and three of its Utah members sued the state in 2005, claiming the crosses are an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity.

In 2010, a three-judge panel from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver agreed and ordered the crosses removed. State attorneys appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but justices declined to hear the case last year.

Attorney Brian Bernard, who represents American Atheists, said he was pleased the litigation had finally ended.

"These troopers deserve to be honored," he said. "They can be and should be honored with memorials that are universal and do not emphasize one religion. Trooper memorials can be on state property; they simply cannot be such an overwhelming religious design."

Chad McWilliams, president of the troopers' association, said his group has spent recent weeks removing all 14 of the crosses so they could be refurbished and include a new logo. The association has secured private property for the crosses and intends to put them back up as soon as possible, he said.

"For the families' sake, we need to get this moved on, get some closure to it and put this behind us," McWilliams said. "Personally, I'd like to see them up before the end of next month. I think that's a realistic goal. We don't have a timeline, but it will be quick."

The refurbished markers, which will remain white crosses, will stay near where the troopers were killed, he added. Each cross will include information that it's a privately funded memorial.

Two Utah men behind the cross project have said they selected crosses for the memorials because the image of a cross can simultaneously convey a message of death, remembrance, honor, gratitude and sacrifice.

In 2006, the Utah Legislature passed a joint resolution declaring the cross a nonreligious secular symbol of death.

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