(CNSNews.com) - American Atheists in Maryland said Friday they want the state to start removing roadside memorials; crosses, flowers and sometimes teddy bears that people leave next to highways where a loved one or family member has died in an automobile accident. The practice is repeated all over the country.
While there are currently no petition drives or other widespread grassroots activities, Maryland atheists say they want state officials to be more proactive in the matter.
"Our position basically is that we're against it (the memorials)," David Condo, Maryland state director for American Atheists, told CNSNews.com. "We don't think it makes sense from a driver's safety perspective, for one. If you're looking at a memorial or any other thing that's been put on the road, then you're certainly not looking at the road. If it's religious in nature it could also be offensive to anyone who just wants to use the road. So it doesn't make sense from a couple of perspectives."
According to Condo, the basic Maryland State policy is to remove anything along the roadways, but he said state officials must be persuaded to enforce the policy.
"There's plenty of places in our society for dealing with grief. I know as much as anybody else that dealing with the loss of a loved one is very difficult. But there a lots of private institutions in our society that deal with such things. We have our cemeteries and our morgues and our churches. There's no need for public roads to be dealing in what should be a personal matter," Condo said.
Ellen Johnson, the national president of American Atheists, agreed, calling the practice of leaving roadside memorials a nationwide problem.
"In fact in New Jersey right near our center, there is a large cross bolted to a tree on the Garden State Parkway put up there by the Sheriff's Department," Johnson told CNSNews.com. "But these are up all over the place. They're shrines set up on public property everywhere and people really don't have the right to do that."
Johnson said the growing number of roadside memorials has upset many of her group's members. But she said people bothered by the memorials usually remove them themselves "because it's easier" than trying to get the state to remove them.
"They get to be extreme. They get to be more than just, let's place a bouquet of flowers where there was an accident," Johnson said. "These become permanent memorials...and it becomes a mission for these people to advertise where no one else can advertise. It's become less about the original situation and more about putting up an advertisement and that's the problem."
In a WBAL Baltimore 920 AM/Associated Press story, Anna Ravegum with the Maryland Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State expressed her organization's concern.
"It's a complicated thing where you have somebody's private grief being expressed on public land, whether it's a cross or just a simple wreath. It's really something that needs public attention and scrutiny," Ravegum was quoted as saying in the WBAL/AP story.
In the same story, David Buck, Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) communications director, remarked on how an increasing number of flags, wreaths and floral arrangements had sprung up along the state's roadways and bridges in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The story reported Buck as saying that after one flag became dislodged and fell on a driver's car, SHA workers "went out and further secured some of the memorials."
However, Buck told reporters, "We're not going to remove anything, whether it's a memorial in remembrance of 9/11 or someone who died on the highway."
According to Condo, that crosses the line in terms of what state officials should be doing about the memorials.
"You're having servants of the state maintaining these private memorials, which shouldn't be there in the first place," Condo said. "You know, that's our tax dollars being spent on something that shouldn't even be there."
Maryland SHA public information officer Lora Rakowski said Condo was correct -- that the general policy was to remove all non-authorized materials on the roadside. She added that her colleague, Buck, had been quoted out of context in the WBAL/AP story.
"Essentially...it's commonplace that a request for (placing) a roadside memorial is denied and we suggest that the requester basically find other means to memorialize the victim," Rakowski told CNSNews.com .
Rakowski said grieving family members have other means for memorializing accident fatality victims -- include planting something at SHA's community planting center or signing up for the adopt-a-highway program in which a sign is placed along the road identifying them as the family of the victim.
Once an unofficial memorial is placed on the side of a highway, "it is removed only if it presents an identifiable safety hazard," Rakowski explained, "because our first concern is for the safety of the motoring public."
But while state highway officials do not make a concerted effort to seek out memorials to remove them, Rakowski said most are removed "eventually anyway" through routine roadside maintenance such as mowing, because of road construction or if the memorials start to deteriorate or become a hazard.
"I know the (Buck) quote (in the WBAL/AP story) did not capture that but...generally if it is a hazard it will be removed and secondly it will eventually, most likely be removed during our mowing season and those types of activities," Rakowski said.
Rakowski said in some cases, even when the memorials are removed, family members replace them on the anniversary of the accident that claimed the loved one.
"We are sensitive to the grieving process of family and friends," Rakowski said, noting that if the signs that are removed are still in "decent shape," SHA keeps them at its Baltimore headquarters where families can retrieve them.
The roadside memorials do not trigger the most complains to Rakowski's office. She said real estate signs placed in hazardous spots along a road produced more complaints than the memorials for accident victims "The focus of our manpower is more dedicated to those things that present immediate safety threats," Rakowski said.
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