Is a cross just a cross?

By the end of the day — maybe — we’ll know whether the Supreme Court wants to answer the question, “is this a violation of the separation of church and state?”


These are white crosses erected by a private group — an association of state troopers from the Utah Highway Patrol — on public land, the side of highways where officers were killed.

Of course, we see generic white crosses often where someone has died, as Nikki Tundel pointed out in her photo essay of makeshift memorials last year. If they’re placed by the side of the road — public land — by private individuals, does that convey a government endorsement of a religion? The Supreme Court could settle that question once and for all.

The court is holding a hearing today to decide whether to accept an appeal of a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that, at least in the Utah case, ruled the practice unconstitutional.

If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, it could overturn the test — the “reasonable observer test,” as it’s known — used to decide these things: does a symbol that is widely recognized as a religious symbol promote that religion.

Would a “reasonable observer” see it as promoting, in this case, Christianity? Or simply a spot where someone probably died?

In its request for the Supreme Court to take up the case, the Utah Highway Patrol Association says the cross is meant only to communicate, “the simultaneous messages of death, honor, remembrance, gratitude, sacrifice, and safety.”

But in ruling the crosses do convey government endorsement of religion, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said a cross “is not a generic symbol of death; it is a Christian symbol of death that signifies or memorializes the death of a Christian.

  • Zach Buchan

    I’m surprised it’s not from Montana. There, the American Legion erects small white crosses at the scene of every fatal accident. It serves as a warning that it’s a dangerous part of the road, and the crosses can be seen for quite a way, even at night. But they’re definitely Christian-type crosses, not placed like “+” signs.

    The family can request to not have one erected, and I’d assume that any Jewish/Muslim/Hindu/etc family would do so. But if the Supreme Court rules against the Utah crosses, will the Montana ones have to go too? I’m an atheist, but they’re one of my favorite parts of my home state!

  • Angella

    So my question to this is, say the SC does say it is a reflection of a religion. Does that mean then there is cause to remove all the crosses in the cemeteries of military who received a government funded burial?

  • Bob Collins

    It’s questions like that — great questions — that make me wish I went to law school, Angella.

  • Jim Shapiro

    I would love to have the roadside cross concession in mountainous, old shool bus, macho drivers playing chicken, devoutly Christian Guatemala.

    Plus, they don’t have enough of a functioning legal system to prohibit genocidal generals from becoming president, much less address a separation of church/state issue!

    Ca-ching! 🙂

  • Paul

    Interestingly, the “beehive” symbol of the state of Utah is also a piece of LDS (Mormon) religious imagery.

  • Kat

    My own question was much like Angella’s: if a Jewish, Hindi, or trooper of any other (or no) religion is killed, does the state trooper’s group erect a different sort of marker, something like the stars of david from WWII era military tombstones? If so, does that change the argument about promotion of a religion?

    Side question: does the military still do markers in the shapes of crosses and stars? I mostly see engraved religious symbols on plain slab tombstones, and the VA has a very wide range of options, listed here: Link

  • Chris

    What is disturbing to me, a Christian pastor, is that the cross is being re-defined by the government to be a generic symbol of sacrifice and mourning. (The government did this, too, with the phrase “In God we trust.” The courts have ruled that the term “God” in this phrase doesn’t actually refer to anything religious.) The re-defining of religious language and symbols by the government to have generic, secular meaning should be offensive to Christians for whom the cross represents a very specific death and sacrifice – that of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Pastor Chris –

    With all due respect, as a deep believer and proponent of Jesus the Christ’s message – that of love, charity and forgiveness – I find it sad and inappropriate that his memory is symbolized by an implement of torture.

  • This is NOT lucy

    @ 3:25 Paul,

    I thought that was a hat, a construction workers hat no less. Thank you for the clarity that it is a beehive. I was wondering, too, why it would say Highway Patrol on a construction workers hat. You have solved the mystery for me. It’s a beehive.

    Would we put Loons on our markers if we chose to do this in our State?

    Do you think this is a big ticket item, one worth losing sleep and money that we don’t have, over?

    Did I, too, ask good questions Bob?

  • Kurt

    Currently the Supreme Court uses the “Lemon” test (Lemon v. Kurtzman) with regard to Establishment Clause cases.

    Though not particularly popular with Scalia and Thomas, the three prongs of Lemon apply to government involvement with religion.

    Under that test, these crosses are probably an excessive government entanglement which violates the third prong of Lemon, and are therefore unconstitutional.

  • jay

    Since the shape of the marker seems to be problematic because it is on government land (the right of way) I wonder if the shape of power poles is also problematic:

    Power pole .gif

    If a group posted a sign or memorial on a power pole, does that make it a cross? Same shape. Does it get a pass for functionality?