Herman: Texas agency says its cross is a 'nonsectarian symbol of death'

Question: When is a cross something other than the long-recognized, long-respected symbol of one of the world’s great religions?

Answer: When one of the world’s great states says it’s a “nonsectarian symbol of death.”

That’s what the Texas Department of Transportation says about the cross on the simple, roadside blue sign on northbound MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) up near the Domain. All the sign says is “In memory of Alexander Davsley. August 30, 2016.”

The words are on the lower 60 percent or so of the sign. The only thing on the upper 40 percent is a cross, the kind commonly associated with Christianity.

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The sign marks another precarious intersection of church and state, as well as the place where Davsley, 29, died last August when his motorcycle was struck by a vehicle changing lanes.

The cross is on the sign because state law requires it, regardless of the deceased’s religious preference or lack thereof. Can a cross ever be devoid of religions connotation? In this case, the state says this cross is — and that it is a “nonsectarian symbol of death.”

The sign is part of TxDOT’s worthwhile-but-somewhat-baffling program in which family or friends of somebody killed in a motorcycle wreck on a state highway can apply for the placement of a memorial sign. The applicants pay $350 and the sign, placed near the crash site, remains in place for a year.

The goal is increased awareness of motorcycle safety. TxDOT says 43 such signs have been installed — including four in Travis, two in Hays and one in Williamson counties — and three more are in the works. Our condolences to the friends and families of all whose names are on the signs. And thanks to those who pay for the signs to help raise awareness about motorcycle safety.

But you’ve got to wonder if these signs accomplish that, as well as whether they stray across the church-state boundary line. (And, FYI, Rhonda Easley, Davsley’s mom, told me her son was a Christian.)

TxDOT’s website says the signs must have a blue background with white writing including the deceased’s name, the date of the crash, the words “In memory of” and “a red cross.” The rules — including the required cross — are in House Bill 2469 approved in 2011.

TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer says the cross is not a religious symbol.

“The red cross is a symbol recognized by the motorcycle community,” she told me. “Our understanding is that the motorcycle community assisted the bill sponsor in developing the language (in the bill), which included the red cross.” This red cross is in the shape of the one used by Christianity, not the American Red Cross.

Bill sponsor Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said the red cross symbol was brought to him by Texas ABATE, which calls itself “an alliance dedicated to the protection of the individual rights of motorcyclists.” ABATE, no longer an acronym, initially stood for “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.”

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“I don’t know if it’s a religious symbol or not,” Phillips told me of the red cross in the law. He acknowledged the potential problem caused by a state-mandated cross on a memorial marker in a state where lots of people aren’t Christians.

“If that’s not a recognized symbol among all cultures of the biking community and it’s representative of a religious symbol, then it needs to be modified in some form or fashion to let those of other faiths or no faith have a symbol to represent their loved ones,” Phillips said.

Correct, though I’m not sure the standard should be what a particular symbol means to any one relatively small group, such as the motorcycle community,

David Dobyns of Kaufman, Texas ABATE state coordinator, said the red cross is something his organization has used for many years to memorialize “fallen bikers.”

“I don’t know really why we use the color we do,” he said. “That’s just our signature, I guess.”

And he said it’s not intended to have religious significance. 

But it sure seems like it probably does to most folks who see the cross on the signs. I called the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which, like me, is sensitive (over-sensitive, some would say) about church-state issues. Turns out the foundation complained about the signs in 2013.

“By law, these signs prominently feature a Latin cross,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, told Phil Wilson, then TxDOT’s executive director, in a letter. “The families of non-Christian motorcycle accident victims are thereby excluded from participating.”

The foundation asked TxDOT to “pursue the adoption of a secular symbol or message in its place.” The cross, Gaylor said in the letter, is “the predominant symbol of Christianity.”

And she made another salient point: The signs, she said, “fail abysmally in raising awareness about motorcycle safety.”

Correct. All they tell you is someone died and when.

Christi Hall of Austin, who was Davsley’s mother-in-law, said the family wanted to put something motorcycle-specific on the sign, something in addition to the red cross that most people probably don’t recognize as motorcycle-related.

“That was something that we wanted to add,” Hall said, “something about motorcycles so that people would know exactly what it stood for. … But it all has to be approved through the state so you couldn’t necessarily add anything to it.”

A similar state program that allows signs for victims of “impaired driving” includes mandatory wording saying, “Please Don’t Drink and Drive.” Seems like the motorcycle fatality signs should carry some kind of motorcycle-awareness message other than a cross that most people see as a religious symbol.

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In his response to Gaylor, Wilson said this cross has no religious significance.

“The design of the sign, including the use of this specific cross, was selected by TxDOT’s Traffic Division and is based on a motorcycle fatality awareness patch used by a Texas motorcycle rights organization,” Wilson told Gaylor. “The red cross design was selected by TxDOT as a nonsectarian symbol of death and not to advance or endorse Christianity.”

As a non-Christian, I respect and recognize the cross as a religious symbol. Seems ludicrous for the state, in this case, to ask Christians not to.

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