The Battle Over Roadside Memorials

TUCSON, Ariz. — When does an expression of faith and grief become a roadway hazard or even an unconstitutional endorsement of religion?

Is attempting to regulate memorials erected where people died on the highway an infringement on personal freedom — or even religious discrimination?

As state and local governments and the courts sort this out, roadside memorials continue to proliferate, fueled by Hispanic immigration, an appreciation for the psychological need to grieve and a desire to draw attention to needless deaths due to drunken or reckless driving.

Michigan photographer Bill Sampson, who has been documenting the memorials for 11 years, said he has attempted, during those years, to provide both a visual record of the memorials as well as insight into the people who place them along the nation's roadways.

“I attached notes to them, asking for someone to call me back,” he said. “I've found that very few people put up memorials. Most have other ways to express grief, but for some people, the memorial is the way they need to deal with the loss.”

He said everyone loses loved ones to death, but the shock of violent and sudden death is a special burden on survivors.

“They need something tangible to help them through tragedy,” he said.

Roadside memorials are nothing new. An outgrowth of a medieval European tradition of posting crosses to solicit prayers for the dead, markers of various kinds — from simple plaques to elaborate shrines — have been erected along North and South America's roadways for centuries.

Some have become historic landmarks. A fountain near St. Augustine Cathedral in Tucson, Ariz., marks the spot where an 18th-century lovers’ quarrel turned deadly. And there's a monument, 17 miles south of Florence, Ariz., to the cowboy actor Tom Mix, “whose spirit left his body on this spot” in 1940.

What is new is the quantity of markers and the attention they are drawing, both as testament and as controversial signs of public faith. Because of this, they have become a lighting rod for those who want to erase religious expression from public view.

Always unofficial, the roadside markers are tolerated in Arizona and New Mexico where the Hispanic tradition of descanses (to mark the site of a violent death) has been recognized since before the territories became part of the United States.

“We leave it up to our 10 districts to decide on a case-by-case basis,” said Arizona Department of Transportation spokeswoman Sally Stewart. “We understand that putting up a memorial is part of the grieving process, so we approach them with compassion and empathy.”

Vocal Atheists

Other states have taken a different position. California removes all unofficial memorials as road hazards, and so do Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Florida has banned the cross but will erect nondenominational markers for free.

Meanwhile, Colorado became the battlefield for a four-year conflict over roadside memorials, which finally ended last year in a compromise that bans the cross from state highways but allows counties to permit them, elsewhere.

The battle started in 2000 when motorist Rodney Scott removed a memorial cross, erected in memory of 18-year-old Brian Rector, who died in a March 1998 car accident. Adams County District Attorney Robert Grant attempted to prosecute Scott for desecrating a venerated object, and the Madison, Wis., Freedom From Religion Foundation came to his defense, successfully arguing that state land could not be used to promote religion.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said the state's policy of turning a blind eye to private memorials was the same as endorsing them.

“I'm sure they acted out of a sense of compassion. After all, nobody wants to make the bereaved feel worse, but nobody is supposed to be putting things up on the right of way,” she said. “I don't think we need to see our highways littered with signs of death.”

Colorado was a natural spot for a conflict over religious symbols, said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “Outside Denver, we have a group of vocal atheists. Every time someone erected a cross they’d call us demanding that it be removed,” she said.

Stegman said the agency responded to the court's decision by banning all memorials. “That caused an even greater outcry,” she said.

For Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, it's not the decision about whether to allow memorials that's wrong. It's the attempt to ban religious symbols that's objectionable.

“Government shouldn't be in the business of defining what a proper roadside monument is,” he said. “Each person should be free to make their own statement.”

Donohue said restrictions on size, placement and materials are within the government's right to regulate.

“If this is really about public safety, then let them regulate based on that. To single out religious symbols for special treatment isn't right,” he said.

“This becomes a different kind of separation of church and state issue, where the government is saying that some symbols are not equal, solely because they are religious,” Donohue said. “We have a big problem with that.”

The struggle to allow memorials went to the state Legislature where Senate Bill 186 pitted atheists and the Colorado Department of Transportation against grieving families, including the bill's sponsor, Sen. Lewis Entz, R-Hooper, who lost a grandson in a traffic accident in 2003.

In the end, the state agreed to erect nondenominational signs at a cost of $100 along state highways and allow individual counties to permit private memorials or erect official markers, at their discretion.

“This ended up being a positive for us because we now have a guideline to follow,” Stegman said. “Nothing takes the place of erecting a personal memorial. People will always do that, but we've seen a reduction in the number and size of memorials, and complaints have gone way down.”

The American Counseling Association has said roadside memorials provide an emotional release for families who need to share grief with others as a way to manage their feelings. For those people, a roadside shrine or memorial, erected and maintained by them, is usually far better than a uniform and sanitized marker, said Arizona State University Professor Patricia Arredondo, the association's president.

“Standardized memorials are just that: standardized,” she said. “It's not that the state is telling you how to mourn but it's something like that.”

Arredondo said, “Memorials hold sacred that earth where that person left this life. … It's bittersweet, but memorials are about people's faith and the need to show that a lost loved one hasn't been forgotten.”

Philip S. Moore is based in Vail, Arizona.