The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty today (Oct. 24) filed an amicus brief on behalf of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, in the 10th Circuit case of American Atheists versus Col. Scott Duncan, head of the Utah Highway Patrol and the Utah Highway Patrol Association, claiming that crosses placed on pubic highways to honor fallen state troopers do not violate the U.S. Constitution because they are private, not government speech.
“American Atheists argue that the crosses violate the Establishment Clause because they are a religious symbol. Our amicus brief seeks to change the debate,” said Luke Goodrich, legal counsel at the Washington-based Becket Fund. “It is irrelevant whether the cross is a religious symbol or a secular symbol. In this case, the cross is a form of private speech. And when the government allows private speech on public property, it cannot discriminate between secular and religious speech and muzzle only the religious.”
On Dec. 8, 1974, William J. Antoniewicz, a 27-year-old Utah state trooper, stopped a speeding car on Interstate 80 near the Utah-Nevada border. As he approached the car, the driver shot him once in the chest and a second time in the back. The Utah Highway Patrol Association, a private group dedicated to supporting state troopers, decided to erect a memorial to the fallen trooper. A 12-foot white cross, with a biographical plaque was placed at the site of the ambush. Some time later, the patrol association decided to erect memorial crosses to all their fallen comrades. There are now 14 crosses across the state.
Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, some of which permit similar symbols on their public highways, signed on to this brief out of concern that a ruling in favor of American Atheists would jeopardize their citizens’ right of free speech. Utah is filing its own brief in opposition to American Atheists.
“If this Court ignores the distinction between private and government speech, these private memorials will certainly be subject to attack,” says the amicus brief.