Today, a Journal North article follows up on the story about 14 Crosses erected as monuments to fallen Police Officers are still being challenged by a group of atheists seeking to ban the crosses. The story is also posted below. I blogged about it when the first story came out. I don't think I'm saying anything new here, so read the story and come to your own conclusions.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Atheists Seek to Ban Roadside Memorials in Utah Case
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal Of the Journal
New Mexico Attorney General Gary King is weighing in on a Utah court case in which atheists are challenging 12-foot-high steel roadside crosses erected to memorialize slain Utah state troopers.
King is worried that, if the Utah crosses are forced to come down, New Mexico's descansos — private roadside crosses, usually erected at the site of a highway death, that are an ubiquitous part of local culture protected by state statute — could also be challenged as an unconstitutional use of state-owned highway property for religious purposes.
"Although this case is currently specific to Utah, it could adversely affect New Mexico law that protects traditional descansos," King said in a prepared statement.
King joined attorneys general from Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas and lawyers for an interfaith group called The Beckett Foundation for Religious Liberty in filing a brief in the Utah case before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
"Filing an amicus brief on our state's behalf supports those fighting the proposed ban (of the Utah crosses) and helps us protect the use of crosses or other symbols in roadside memorials," King said.
At issue in the Utah case is whether the trooper memorials violate the constitutional prohibition against state establishment of religion, by endorsing Christianity. A federal District Court judge ruled in favor of the Utah crosses, but American Atheists, Inc., — plaintiffs in the case — have appealed.
Santa Fe city government is already on record opposing a ban of the Utah crosses. In September, the City Council voted to have its lawyers file a brief in the case.
Santa Fe City Attorney Frank Katz told the Journal at the time that the Utah Highway Patrol had approached Santa Fe for support, apparently because of the Cross of the Martyrs, the big cross overlooking downtown that honors 21 Franciscan friars killed in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.
An Oct. 24 brief filed on behalf of Santa Fe and numerous Utah state legislators by a Washington, D.C., law firm states that a ruling against the Utah crosses "could jeopardize the Cross of the Martyrs, or at very least subject the city to costly litigation."
But the lawyer for American Atheists dismisses concerns that their suit is a threat to New Mexico's traditional religious markers.
"Part of the defense attorneys' strategy to is to have this parade of horribles that could happen," said Brian Barnard of the Utah Legal Clinic in Salt Lake City.
"The crosses we're concerned about have the Utah State Highway Patrol logo attached. That becomes the government's stamp of approval, literally.
"The roadside memorials or descansos are put up by ordinary folks, ordinary folks who don't have government participation."
He also said that, in Utah, descansos are against the law and have to be removed if someone puts one up. That means, he said, that the 14 trooper memorial crosses erected by the nonprofit Utah Highway Patrol Association, which represents state troopers and their families, have "a special privilege that nobody else does."
"We're only dealing with crosses that are on government property and have the government's logo on them," Barnard said. "Descansos are safe." As for Santa Fe's Cross of the Martyrs, Barnard pointed to indications that the cross isn't on public property and therefore "has no relation to our lawsuit."
The Cross of the Martyrs location has a complicated ownership history, and according to information provided Friday by city government, is in fact not on city land — although the city parks department maintains the site.
Santa Fe spokeswoman Laura Banish said the cross belongs to Los Caballeros de Vargas, which helps organize Santa Fe's annual September Fiesta celebrations, including a solemn religious procession to the Cross of the Martyrs.
Hillside property from Paseo de Peralta up to the cross, including a switchback path, belongs to the Santa Fe Fiesta Foundation, Banish said. The city owns the park behind and to the east of the cross.
Previous owners of the cross include the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the Santa Fe Fiesta Foundation. The foundation, formed in the 1980s, deeded the cross to Los Caballeros, Banish said. Los Caballeros pays property tax on the cross, she said.
The brief filed on behalf of New Mexico and the other states in the Utah case notes that New Mexico law makes it a crime to "knowingly or willfully deface or destroy" a descanso and argues that a ruling against the Utah crosses would jeopardize New Mexico's practice of "allowing private speech on public property" by permitting and protecting the roadside memorials.
Utah exercised no control over the design of the trooper crosses that would constitute endorsement of a religion and its legislature has passed a resolution supporting use of not only crosses, but "any other appropriate symbols as requested by the family (of a fallen trooper)," the brief says.
The plaintiffs want to "require Utah to suppress the (Highway Patrol) Association's speech solely because of its religious viewpoint," and that would violate the association's free speech rights, the brief says.
Now descansos are all over the place in New Mexico. I really would like to do a historical post about them with pictures. Here are a few examples. They are left behind to mark the spot where someone died. Usually, the loved ones erect them in their memory. It's not unusual to see flowers appear on certain days of the year-- the person's birthday, the anniversary of their death, Memorial Day, All Souls Day, Christmas. Some are elaborate others are simple. They dot highways, city streets or winding mountain roads. The two below are actually on the same intersection where a young girl was killed and a year or so later a woman was killed in horrible car accidents. There is actually a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the other corner. I don't believe that is in memory of anyone else killed, but is more of a gentle reminder to be cautious and careful.
In this picture post, if you scroll down you'll see another one. It's a simple cross but obviously someone loved and cherished died on that spot too.
These are parts of my culture and I'd hate to see them taken away by a group of people on a mission to rid this nation of all outward signs of religion.