Utah’s Cross Controversy

On a highway in southern Utah, midway between Tropic and Cedar City, a mammoth cross marks the place where, 29 years ago this month, state trooper Lynn Pierson was killed by a car thief. Pierson's son Clint, a 36-year-old county deputy, sees the stark white memorial every time he takes his kids to the local Wal-Mart. "It's a huge source of pride," he says. "As a family, it helped us heal."

There are 14 such crosses, all of them 12 feet tall, scattered around the state, each bearing the name of a dead trooper and the Utah Highway Patrol insignia. They were erected by the privately funded Utah Highway Patrol Association beginning in 1998, and whether they continue to stand is in the hands of a federal judge in Salt Lake City, who must decide if the crosses are symbols of remembrance or religion. U.S. District Judge David Sam heard arguments earlier this week on both sides of the constitutional debate and has promised to rule soon.

The controversy started in December 2005, when American Atheists Inc. filed suit to have the markers removed, arguing that the cross is a universal symbol of Christianity and, when placed on public property, illegal. The lawsuit sparked outrage from the families of fallen officers, other police officers and legislators. Even some atheists went out of their way to dissociate themselves from the Texas-based group.

The crosses honor troopers who have died since 1931. Ten of the monuments are on public land, which required special permission from the state. "It was never our intent to do anything religious," says Lt. Lee Perry, who helped spearhead the project. "It was strictly to honor their memory."

Assistant attorney general Thom Roberts made the same argument in court. The cross, like Christmas and "Closed on Sunday," is a religious expression that evolved into a secular symbol, he said. To emphasize his point, Roberts held up pictures of telephone poles and showed a clip from Ben Casey, the 1960s TV medical drama. In it, Dr. David Zorba uses the cross as a generic symbol for death.

Roberts also argued that, since 11 of the 14 honored troopers were Mormons, members of a church that does not use the cross as a symbol of its beliefs, the monuments could hardly be considered a religious expression. "This is not about putting God back in the public space," Roberts says. "This is a memorial to officers who died in the line of duty."

Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the atheists, counters that the case hinges not on what a Mormon thinks but on how a reasonable observer would interpret a giant cross on the side of the highway. And when people see a giant white cross, he says, they don't just think of death, they think of the death of Jesus Christ. "It's hard to conceive of another symbol that is so instantly meaningful," Barnard says. "And here's the state of Utah putting its stamp of approval on it."

Besides, he notes, just because the LDS Church does not use the Star of David doesn't change the fact that it is a religious symbol exclusive to one faith. At one point in Tuesday's hearing, an attorney for the UHPA underscored Barnard's point, noting that if a Jewish trooper were killed, his family would have the option of erecting a giant Star of David in place of a cross.

Robert Kirby, the former police officer who came up with the idea for the memorials, says the cross was intended to be an easily recognizable symbol of the sacred, not a religious statement. Kirby, now a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, says that he and Perry debated a lot of different symbols—signs, giant rocks, tombstones—before settling on the cross. "We wanted something instantly recognizable at 75 miles per hour, something that would say, 'This is hallowed ground'," says Kirby. "I have a lot of respect for the atheists. I believe in separation of church and state. But this is a little bit picky, even for them."