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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Twelve-foot-high crosses honoring deceased Utah troopers along state highways are not an illegal public endorsement of religion, a judge said.
U.S. District Judge David Sam said the 14 crosses communicate a secular message.
"Even classic religious symbols may have various meanings and purposes depending on their context," he said Tuesday. "The memorial crosses at issue communicate a secular message, a message that a patrolman died or was mortally wounded at a particular location."
Each cross features the Utah Highway Patrol logo, a name and badge number, and a plaque with a biography of the fallen trooper. Public money was not used to make them.
Texas-based American Atheists Inc. sued, arguing the crosses have no place on public land. The group believes an American flag or a tombstone would be more appropriate.
"There's no question these troopers should be honored," said Brian Barnard, attorney for the atheists. "Lets just do it in a way that does not emphasize religion."
The judge said U.S. military cemeteries display crosses to represent the deaths of public servants. The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control uses the cross in its billboard campaign against drinking and driving.
Sam noted that Utah's majority religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does not use a cross as an icon.
A cross along Interstate 80 in Parleys Canyon memorializes Trooper Dan Harris, who died there in 1982 while chasing a speeder.
"I am just beyond delighted," his widow, Andrea Augenstein, said of the court ruling. "We made this sacrifice along with him, and we get to have this symbol of what happened.
"It's who we are," she added. "We tell everyone we know, 'Look for the cross."'
Barnard said he plans to take the case to a federal appeals court in Denver.
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)