Utah pays $388K to resolve roadside crosses case
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Utah is paying nearly $400,000 to resolve a lawsuit over roadside crosses honoring Utah troopers killed in the line of duty, officials said Friday.
The settlement forced the state and the Utah Highway Patrol Association to remove 11 Roman crosses along state highways and roads.
The trooper association has taken down the crosses and plans to move them off roadsides and rest stops to nearby private land with the owners’ permission. It also must remove UHP logos from the symbols.
The lawsuit was filed by American Atheists Inc. and three of its Utah members in 2005.
Utah paid $1 to settle the case, but the Utah Attorney General’s office confirmed Friday it is paying about $388,000 in legal fees for the atheists.
Utah and the troopers’ association “fought tooth and nail saying these crosses aren’t really religious symbols and they should stay,” Brian Barnard, a civil-rights lawyer who represented American Atheists, said. “They wouldn’t entertain any discussion about compromising over six years. We offered repeatedly to try and resolve it short of full litigation.”
At first, the atheists’ lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge David Sam in Salt Lake City, but a three-judge panel from Denver’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that the highway crosses represented a state endorsement of Christianity.
State attorneys appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but justices declined to hear the case last year.
Barnard said the $388,000 pays his legal fees but that the state and trooper association probably spent as much money and time trying to defeat the lawsuit.
The Utah Highway Patrol Association maintains the memorials and is repainting them to remove official logos. It was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., group that describes itself as a defender of religious freedom.
“We were prepared to fight this battle to the very end because it was very important,” said Byron Babione,the group’s senior counsel.
Babione said troopers were unhappy with the settlement and wanted to keep the crosses in place _ without logos, but with a disclaimer saying Utah wasn’t endorsing any religion.
State lawyers rejected that request, saying it risked more litigation, he said.
Barnard’s legal fees were authorized by Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature, but Barnard said he was given a check on Wednesday that fell about $8,000 short of the agreed figure.
Utah is writing a second check to cover the difference, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s spokesman, Paul Murphy, said.
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