The United States Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling that ordered the removal of 12-foot high crosses placed along highways in Utah to commemorate state troopers killed in the line of duty.
The court acted without comment, but Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a 19-page dissent.
Starting in 1998, the private Utah Highway Patrol Association erected and maintained more than a dozen memorial crosses, most on state land, and visible from the highway. The American Atheists Association and three of its Utah members sued the state in 2005, contending that the crosses amounted to state endorsement of religion.
A federal appeals court in Denver agreed, concluding that the cross is "the preeminent symbol of Christianity," and that the crosses "stood alone, on public land, bearing the Utah Highway Patrol emblem."
The Utah Highway Patrol Association appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but by an 8-to-1 vote, the Court declined to review the lower court decision.
The solo dissent came from Justice Clarence Thomas, who has long taken the position that the Constitution's ban on state establishment of religion applies only to the Federal government, and not to the states.
Even if the other justices do not subscribe to that view, he said, they should have taken the Utah case for reivew to straighten out its previous conflicting and "unprincipled" decisions.
Indeed, Thomas said that the Court has made such a muddle of its religious display cases that the lower courts are simply unable to comply. He pointed in particular to two decisions issued by the Supreme Court six years ago. In one, the justices upheld a Ten Commandments monument on state grounds in Texas because it stood with many other kinds of monuments and, in context, was seen as more historical than religious. In the other, the justices ruled that a Kentucky courthouse had to take down its display of the Ten Commandments because of what the justices saw, in context, as a clearly religious message.