SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal appeals court has rejected a petition for a rehearing in a case involving 14 memorial crosses on Utah highways that an appellate panel said were unconstitutional.
The Utah Highway Patrol Association, the Utah Department of Public Safety and two other state agencies sought a rehearing before the full 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel from the Denver court ruled in August that the 12-foot-high crosses represent a state endorsement of Christianity.
The association and state agencies contend the memorials honor fallen officers and encourage safe driving. The groups argued that all 10 of the court's judges should decide whether the panel's opinion erroneously found that the placement of private monuments on public land with government permission amounts to government speech.
The judges rejected a rehearing in a 5-4 ruling issued Monday. The court's chief judge, Mary Beck Briscoe, recused herself.
In dissenting opinions, Judges Paul J. Kelly and Neil M. Gorsuch said they don't believe the U.S. Constitution requires all religion or religious expression to be purged from the public sphere, and the context of the symbol should be considered.
Kelly also noted that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision recognized that the Latin cross has become a symbol of more than just Christian beliefs and could send at least a twofold message to drivers passing the memorials on state highway.
Kelly concluded the crosses have a clear secular meaning or message: "to memorialize troopers who were killed in the line of duty."
It was not clear Thursday whether attorneys for the association or the state agencies would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Texas-based American Atheists Inc. and three of its Utah members, sued the state in 2005 over the use of the highway patrol's logo on the crosses and said the structures should be removed. The group said the memorials infer that the troopers who died at each location were Christians.
The white crosses were first erected in 1998 and are paid for with donations to the association. All but four of the crosses are on public land.