Magazine article Free Inquiry

Religion on the Roadside: Traffic Fatality Markers Generate Controversy. (Applied Ethics)

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Religion on the Roadside: Traffic Fatality Markers Generate Controversy. (Applied Ethics)

Article excerpt

Ceremonies remembering the dead frequently have religious overtones, but few nonbelievers object to them because the services are usually held in private. But what happens when the religious demand to use public land to express their beliefs in the form of roadside memorials to loved ones who died in car crashes?

Roadside memorials are sparking controversy across America. In Portland, Oregon, highway transportation workers began removing religious memorials after locals complained that they weren't appropriate on public roads. In response, Republican Senator Marilyn Shannon launched a campaign to make religious memorials legal. She believes that the protests against the roadside memorials are a "temper tantrum" thrown by nonbelievers: "I knew all along that this was about the atheists not wanting to see crosses on a public right of way" she said in an interview with Amalie Young of the Associated Press.

Shortly after the controversy began, signs and placards sprouted up bearing crosses with a red slash through them, swastikas, and the number 666, presumably put there to honor the memory of a dead racist or self-styled Satanist (or, perhaps, by regular folk simply to make the point that freedom of expression cuts both ways). Transportation workers routinely remove all placards and memorials along highways, religious or otherwise.

Aside from the religious issue, the roadside memorials present another problem: a safety hazard. Objects left at shrines can include food, teddy bears, photographs, artwork, crosses, plastic flowers, cards, cement statues of the Virgin, letters, candles, and even articles of clothing and toys. These obstruct highway crews trying to clear the roadways and could become projectiles when tall grass is mowed. One person's mementos and offerings soon turn into another person's trash. …

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