Transplanted Lawyer (self-declared atheist) brings up the story of the American Atheists trying to stop the Utah Highway Patrol’s desire to put up a white cross next to places where officers have been killed. He doesn’t think that it’s a good idea because it’s something that does not elicit an iota of general public support. And it risks backlash of the sort where the court can declare a cross a “secular symbol”… which is what the courts actually did. TL isn’t pleased by that result:

There you go — a ruling that the cross is now a secular symbol of death and mourning. Which means that not only can it go up on roadside memorials, it can go up on the walls of courtrooms, city halls, and the Utah Legislature because it can be called a “memorial” to fallen soldiers, 9/11 victims, or anyone else that no one with the remotest bit of political sense would dare attack. Good job protecting the wall of separation of church and state there, American Atheists!

There are two great ironies here:

  1. The white crosses in the state of Utah are almost certainly secular in nature.
  2. The Utah Legislature would have almost certainly no desire to put the cross everywhere, even if they could.

If a state in the south were to argue that the white cross is a secular symbol, I would probably scoff. Actually, not just the south. Almost any state. Any state except Utah, that is. And maybe Idaho. Why? Because Utah happens to be the only state in the continental United States that I am aware of where the dominant religion (or denomination, depending on how you look at it) does not recognize the cross as a holy symbol. Utah is, of course, predominantly Mormon. Mormons are particularly active in positions of authority such as police departments and government because they are united and civilly active. So it stands to reason that most of the people behind the push for the white cross are Mormons. And Mormons do not recognize the cross as a holy symbol.

Their churches do not have crosses. Their temples do not have crosses. Necklaces around their neck do not contain crosses. In short, Mormons don’t do crosses. So if Mormons (or Utahns) want crosses on the side of the road, it is almost certainly secular in nature.

What’s bizarre is that someone in the American Atheists must know this. Or if they didn’t know if off the bat, the Utah branch of the ACLU might have given their erstwhile allies a heads up. I had to check, but there is an ACLU in Utah, though I couldn’t find anything on American Atheists of Utah. Somebody, somewhere must have told them that this was not the fight to pick. Even if knowing that crosses are not a Mormon thing and that the crosses are religious in content if not in intent, surely someone, somewhere must have looked at this case and known that it was a fool’s quest. Right? Or are these people so insulated that they don’t know any Mormons to inform them of the whole cross thing or that suing cops wanting to honor their fallen brethren is a bad idea?

In short, to the extent that this case drew my attention, it actually convinced me that white crosses are a secular symbol. Had this taken place in South Carolina, I would have doubted it very strongly. And if you would have told me that someone was suing the state of Utah because of some improprieties involving Church and State, I would almost certainly give the plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt. This is the case that convinces me that Utah isn’t always wrong on Church/State issues and that the cross is indeed a secular symbol, at least in it’s white-by-the-road form.

I don’t think that’s what the American Atheists were going for…

Category: Church, Statehouse

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8 Responses to No Crosses in Utah

  1. a_c says:

    Interesting; why don’t Mormons do crosses? Is there a difference in theology or is it simply cultural?

  2. Abel says:

    Mormons don’t use crosses because they believe it’s a symbol of the Dying Christ instead of the Living Christ. (You can read a more detailed explanation here.)

    That being said, Mormons don’t view the cross as a secular symbol. (Please, Will, explain your thinking on this.) We view it as a religious symbol that is used my most other Christians denominations and understand and respect the importance they place on it. The cross is simply a symbol that we’ve decided to use to define our brand of Christianity.

  3. trumwill says:

    What I meant was that Mormons don’t recognize the cross as their holy symbol. If they wanted to put up a holy symbol or establishment of faith in mourning of their deceased, they wouldn’t use a cross. Therefore the use of the cross by the UHP, an organization that likely consists of more Mormons than anyone else, they’re not using it as a religious symbol. They’re using it as a more universal symbol of death, mourning, tragedy, or something along those lines. Not as a proclaimation of faith the same way that (other) Christians might use it. It has a meaning apart from the expression of faith.

    But you’re Mormon and I’m not, so please do correct me if I’m misunderstanding your church’s relationship with the cross.

  4. Abel says:

    You’re right. We wouldn’t use a cross and we do view the cross in that context as a universal symbol of death.

    To be honest, I don’t know what symbol, if any, we’d use in the place of the cross in the content of the crosses of the Utah Highway Patrol.

    I need to think on that.

  5. Peter says:

    In the last decade or so there’s been a big increase in the number of impromptu roadside memorials at crash sites. Crosses, candles, pictures, handwritten tributes, teddy bears, and so on. There’s a few that I know about which have been maintained for years.

  6. trumwill says:


    I know that the thing that always makes me notice LDS churches are the spires on which Moroni stands atop. But I gather that’s more of a platform for Moroni rather than something significant in itself.

    I thought about coming up with what a Mormon symbol might be for the title of this post, but I came to the conclusion that my ignorance could make whatever I came up with offensive.


    I’ve seen those before. It makes me wonder what would happen if they were blown onto the road and caused an accident. Would the property owner be liable or would whomever is maintaining the shrine?

    In any case, such displays are a sweet thought, but I don’t think that they’re a good idea. A cross on the site of the road provides instant meaning. Something like that is sort of like a small-type bumper sticker that might distract drivers.

  7. Peter says:

    Most of the roadside memorials I see are right by the edge of the road and thereby likely to be on town- or county-owned land. Road crews don’t remove them, so I would imagine that the authority at least tacitly accept their presence.

    Another form of impromptu display I’ve been noticing more and more are home-made signs on white sheets hung on the outsides of highway overpasses. They seem about evenly divided between professions of love (there even have been a few “Will you marry me?” ones), and welcoming home soldiers from Iraq. They tend not to stay up for long, presumably the road crews remove them as potential traffic hazards.

  8. trumwill says:


    What’s common in Colosse is for people to make messages using styrofoam coffee cups in bridges on overpass walkways. They stuff the cups in the wire fences in the shape of letters. It’s creative, though I’d imagine pollution-inducing when the cups eventually blow away.

    In Deseret, there is this… structure… I don’t know what it is exactly… by the Interstate in one of the rural counties. But it’s full of graffiti dedicated to Returned Missionaries.

    In Cascadia, there is a guy on one of the bridges that I guess is a retired vet or something because he is always out there waving some flag of a conservative or military bent. McCain-Palin signs during the election, American flags, anti-abortion signs, and POWMIA flags since.

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