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A rally held in support of keeping crosses that honor fallen Utah Highway Patrol troopers was part memorial, part pep talk Saturday.

And while American Atheists Inc., which filed suit against the UHP and the Utah Department of Transportation seeking removal of the 12-foot-tall crosses that dot Utah's roadways, insists the action is about maintaining a level playing field for everyone, it was clear by the more than 300 people who attended the rally that the battle to keep the crosses has marched onto sensitive ground.

Emotions bubbled to the surface as family members of the fallen troopers spoke of their loss and their commitment to see the crosses stand. Some called the lawsuit mean-spirited and deliberately timed to coincide with the holiday season.

"This has ripped the scab off a deep wound that is now open and weeping," said Lori Lucas, whose father, Tom Rettberg, died when the UHP helicopter he was flying crashed near Layton in February 2000.

Children and grandchildren of fallen troopers crowded alongside other family members who opened the rally by reading the names of the 13 fallen officers from atop a temporary platform built in the parking lot of the UHP's Salt Lake-area headquarters at 5600 S. 300 West. Lawn crosses, fashioned together with plastic pipe and labeled with the name of one of the fallen troopers, were purchased and carried by supporters who listened to a mixture of speakers for about an hour.

Doug Wright of KSL radio, who was been a champion of the UHP cause, called the suit and American Atheists Inc. egregious and insensitive.

"This time they've crossed the line," Wright said.

Lt. Lee Perry said the crosses were erected near highways and chosen as a symbol that was easily identifiable with death and sacrifice.

"We wanted to remind people that the price we pay to keep the public safe does not come cheap," Perry said. "Honoring service and sacrifice shouldn't be unconstitutional."

And for many of the victims' family members, the lawsuit is seen not in the context of the legality of erecting a religiously themed memorial on state-owned land, but rather as a direct assault to the memory of a trooper who died in service to the public.

"Removing that cross would be like desecrating or disturbing my father's grave," Lucas said.

Michael Rivers, Utah state director of American Atheists Inc., told The Tribune on Thursday that this is probably the most attention the fallen officers have received in a long time.

"We feel that they should be memorialized, just not with a Christian symbol," Rivers said. "For so long, religious symbols and symbology have received special preferences and treatment. When we ask for a level playing field, they scream intolerance. And no, we just want you to play by the same rules as everyone else does."

Among the ralliers was 20-year-old Patrick Cullen, who called the lawsuit "ignorant." Cullen, who plans to enter the police academy in four months, has no immediate tie to the UHP but came to show his support for keeping the crosses.

Laketown residents Jonathan and Rhondalyn Garrard stood near the back of the crowd, their children's stroller doubling as a stand for several signs decrying the lawsuit.

"I'm tired of atheist people trying to take God out of our country," said Jonathan Garrard. "They're attacking crosses now? What's next?"