American Atheists have filed a lawsuit (pdf) in federal court in Utah demanding changes to a memorial marker being used for fallen Utah Highway Patrol officers. The memorial consists of a cross with the Utah Highway Patrol emblem on it. The American Atheists are claiming that since the cross is a religious symbol, its use wrongly mixes church and state and thereby endorses a particular religious belief.
My first impression in looking at this case is to say that the atheists are wrong here.
The report stated that the purpose of the lawsuit was to “eliminate religious symbols used by government agencies and placed on government land.”
This is not a legitimate objective. It is quite permissible to use religious symbols when they represent the views of a given individual. For example, a memorial at a government-run cemetery can contain a religious symbol even if the cemetery is run by a government agency and the cemetery itself is government land. It would be wrong to prohibit the use of a religious symbol in this case.
However, before I conclude that the atheists are entirely in the wrong, I have to ask: Is the choice to use a cross as a memorial made with respect to the wishes of the person being memorialized?
It is true that the cross is a sign peculiar to the Christian religion.
If the deaths of non-Christians are being memorialized by the use of a Christian symbol, this would be wrong. This practice would send the message that the individual being honored is a Christian. This is fine if it was true, but it would be an affront to the person being honored if it were false.
However, if the decision to use a cross is based on a consideration of the views of those being honored, then these memorials do not blend church and state. The cross does not represent the state, it represents the individual who is being honored. If that representation is true and accurate, then there is no reason at all not to have that fact recognized in the state's memorial.
The story on these memorials suggests that the cross is used for people of all faiths. Sergeant Todd Royce said, ""The crosses are used as an international sign of memorial similar to those in Arlington National Cemetery." However, Arlington Cemetery provides a white marble marker with a selection of faith emblems to choose from. They do not bury everybody under a Christian marker.
This is the right way to do it.
If Arlington Cemetery were, in fact, putting a cross on all markers, that would be wrong. If the Utah Highway Patrol Association were also allowing a choice of faith symbols, that would not be wrong.
Respect for Individual Beliefs
The story also quotes Rodney Lund, the father of a Utah agent memorialized by one of the markers. According to the article, Lund states, "I understand the meaning of it. My religion doesn't necessarily revere that. If they wanted to do something else, that would be fine, but I'd hate to see them take it down."
I agree with his sentiment that there should be some sort of memorial. I also believe that it would be wrong to take down the memorial that uses a Christian marker where it memorializes somebody who was, indeed, Christian. However, this is consistent with holding that it is wrong to require that a Christian marker be used for every agent -- past and future -- regardless of his or her beliefs.
Indeed, the claim that the Christian Cross is a universal symbol of memorial is simply false. It may appear to be true for somebody who is surrounded by Christianity, but Christianity has not yet been adopted as the default universal religion.
The issue here concerns the legitimacy of requiring that all officers be memorialized by a Christian marker. If that was the decision of the Utah Highway Patrol Association, then that decision was a mistake.
Even here I am going to say that the Atheists who were filing the lawsuit were wrong. The proper authority for filing this lawsuit would be any officers that did not wish to be memorialized under a Christian symbol, or the family of somebody who has died who did not wish to have their family member represented to the world as Christian. These are the people who are most directly being wronged, and they are the ones who should be seeking a remedy.
Of course, before it comes to that, the Utah Highway Patrol Association should simply begin by admitting that it would be wrong to represent an agent who died in the line of duty by a Christian symbol if they were not Christian. They should institute some sort of procedure for making alternatives available for those who may wish it.
At the same time, the Utah Atheists should admit that there is nothing inappropriate with a government agency using a religious symbol to represent a given individual if the symbol accurately represents that individual’s beliefs. Doing so does not constitute a state endorsement of a particular religious beliefs, it constitutes the state’s respect for the beliefs of that individual.
Then, this lawsuit can be dropped, and we can all go about our business with greater mutual respect and tolerance for our individual differences.