Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Crosses Ruled to Violate Separation of Church and State (and State)

Tenth Circuit: Utah Highway Crosses Violate Establishment Clause
Clifford M. Marks, Wall Street Journal Law Blog (August 19, 2010)

Roadside memorials involving religious symbols — invariably Christian crosses — have long caused controversy regarding their legality with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, also known as the separation of church and state. Because roads are managed by state and local governments, detractors argue that planting crosses implies a state endorsement of religion or particular religions. A 2007 district court ruling disagreed, claiming that “crosses merely [send] a secular message about death.”

This ruling was reversed on Wednesday in a federal appeals court with a case about roadside crosses for deceased Utah highway troopers — an apparent state-endorsement of religion double whammy (government employees on government property being commemorated with Christian crosses, unlike arguably slightly less controversial cases involving private citizens doing the same).

As the WSJ Law blog states, the judges held that “a ‘reasonable observer’ could conclude that the presence of the crosses amounted to a state-endorsement of Christianity” and further that

“This may lead the reasonable observer to fear that Christians are likely to receive preferential treatment from the [Utah Highway Patrol],” the judges wrote, adding elsewhere in the opinion that “unlike Christmas, which has been widely embraced as a secular holiday. . . . there is no evidence in this case that the cross has been widely embraced by non-Christians as a secular symbol of death.”

Check out the full tenth circuit court opinion (pdf).

Those who have been paying any attention at all, willingly or not, to the vitriol around present-day religion in America can be sure this won’t be the end of this and similar cases.

Monuments + Memorials

Ghost Bikes: The End of the Road


I’ve been looking at and thinking about bikes lately. I’m in the market to buy a new one and my mind is kind of going crazy with all the possibilities. At any time of year, it’s hard not to think of bikes here in Portland, OR. They’re everywhere. Portland is the most bike friendly city in America and has the highest per capita bike commuters every year.

Something else that comes to mind when I think of bikes is safety — and whether or not I will be crushed or otherwise vaporized by a two ton car on the way to my destination.

For those cyclists who do die on the way to their destination, there exists a certain kind of memorial — the ghost bike. Part memorial, part warning, ghost bikes can be found in many cities across the Unites States and the world. Painted all white, often with sprays of flowers (real or fake) and cards and various tributes adorning them, they are usually locked up to a street sign nearest the location the cyclist was hit or met their death.

The first ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, MO in 2003 and was the brainchild of Patrick Van Der Tuin, a motorist who witnessed the death of a cyclist in his city and placed the first memorial bike at that site. See his website here.

Websites such as and are dedicated to the dissemination of information about ghost bikes, where they can be found and bicycle/motorist safety advocacy. The New York City Street Memorial Project, a group dedicated to larger issues of pedestrian and cyclist safety on the busy streets of New York, has also taken up the cause of ghost bikes. A recent NY Times article features the organization and the story of Amelia Geocos, a 24-year-old young woman who collided with a van and who died of her head injuries.

In addition, an article just yesterday describes the mystery surrounding an “unofficial” ghost bike seen in Washington Heights, a northern Manhattan neighborhood.

Roadside memorials have a long and rich history. The ghost bike phenomenon is a fascinating extension of that. I think the new bike I will purchase will not be white. (The picture used in this article is attributed to the New York Times).

Death + the Law Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Memorials Face Roadblocks

Should Roadside Memorials Be Banned?
New York Times (July 12, 2009)

As part of their “Room for Debate” series, the New York Times provides five varying perspectives (along with well over a hundred reader comments so far) on the issue of roadside and neighborhood memorials. These shrines of grief—including crosses, photos, flowers, stuffed animals and other mementos—spring up seemingly spontaneously at the sites of accidental death and murder.

With most of them displayed on public property along highways and city sidewalks, however, opinions vary on their appropriateness and legality. Are such memorials safety hazards for decelerating, distracted motorists and, for the ones including religious symbols, violations of church and state? Or are they “outlaw” expressions of the people that will not and cannot (and perhaps should not) be suppressed?

One contributor is Melissa Villanueva, director and producer of Resting Places, a documentary about roadside memorials that explores the controversy in depth. The film is presently seeking distribution—here’s a trailer.