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Published: Tuesday, 3/16/2010

No roadside vigilantes

THE idea that government and religion don't mix is older than the U.S. Constitution, informed the thinking of the Founding Fathers, and has developed into the principle that government should do nothing that suggests a preference for any particular religion or for religious versus nonreligious belief.

But advocating that private individuals remove roadside memorials that include religious symbols set up to honor loved ones killed in vehicle crashes is both provocative and unnecessary.

In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the popularity of these often makeshift and spontaneous outpourings of grief along the nation's highways. Often they consist of little more than a spray of flowers or a ribbon tied to a tree or guard rail. Sometimes, however, they include traditional iconography, most often a cross.

When placed on private property - with permission - the markers are perfectly legal. But most are set up on medians, berms, and rights of way that are publicly held, placing them afoul of that pesky separation of church and state concept.

Some states allow temporary markers or regulate the memorials in other ways. Delaware set up a memorial garden at a highway rest area. Ohio prohibits all displays, whether or not overtly religious, on the grounds that they may distract drivers and could cause injury if struck.

We find no great harm in the displays, and even believe they may serve useful purposes such as helping families grieve and marking dangerous stretches of highway for other drivers.

But both Ohio law and Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between government and religion are worth defending. So it is appropriate that road crews remove the symbols in the normal course of their duties.

And it is unnecessary, heartless, and dangerous for people to take matters into their own hands, as the group Atheist Activist advocated recently. The group seems more interested in precipitating a confrontation than making sure the law is enforced.

If state or local highway departments are ignoring the memorials, concerned parties should seek a remedy in the courts, not by taking the law into their own hands, causing a distraction, and making the roads more dangerous.



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