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Florida scraps plan to erect crosses at car accident sites

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (JTA) — In response to the Florida Jewish community’s complaints of insensitivity, the state’s Department of Transportation has scrapped plans to use a cross as its official roadside memorial marker. In a state that is home to some of the most treacherous roads in the country, the transportation department decided last year to begin clearing away some of the shrines erected at the sites of traffic fatalities. Saying that some of the elaborate homemade markers were potential road hazards, Florida decided to begin using a cross, similar to a Red Cross emblem, as a universal memorial symbol. Jewish groups charged that the symbol too closely resembled the Christian cross and urged the state to either adopt a non-sectarian symbol or be prepared to honor requests from people of different faiths. “We felt this policy trampled on the rights of all non-Christians, that it offended many who are Christian and don’t believe the state should be in the memorial business, and that it violated the spirit and possibly the letter of the First Amendment,” said Jack Lipsey, president of the American Jewish Committee’s South Central Florida region. Under the policy, implemented Jan. 1 and dropped last week, Jewish families would have been barred from erecting Stars of David at accident sites in memory of loved ones. Florida abandoned the policy in the face of objections from Jewish and civil liberties organizations. There were also threats of a lawsuit. “It was never our intention to offend anyone with our new policy,” Ben Watts, Florida’s secretary of transportation, said in a statement. “We simply want to make motorists more aware of highway safety when they drive by the memorial markers.” Watts said the department would change the markers “since some Floridians strongly believe that the department’s markers resemble a cross rather than an internationally recognized safety symbol as we intended it to be.” The department will now attempt to design a new memorial marker, Watts said. Proposals include a simple wooden post with room for a plaque. Jack Karako, southeast regional director of the American Jewish Congress, said he still questions whether the state should be in the business of using taxpayer money to erect highway memorials. He said, however, that as long as no one has any objection, “certainly a non-denominational marker is something that’s probably a good compromise that will not offend anyone else.”