updated 1/6/2011 1:27:58 PM ET 2011-01-06T18:27:58

A Denver appeals court has stayed an order that would remove 14 memorial crosses from Utah's highways intended to honor fallen officers and encourage safe driving.

The ruling gives the Utah attorneys general's office 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the 12-foot-high memorials are unconstitutional.

In August, a three-judge appeals court panel said the crosses represent an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and that the crosses, which bear the logo of the Utah Highway Patrol, should come down.

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Attorneys for the Utah Highway Patrol Association, the Utah Department of Public Safety and two other state agencies sought a rehearing before the appeals court's full panel of judges. The petition was denied in a 5-4 decision issued in December.

The Texas-based American Atheists Inc. and three of its Utah members sued the state in 2005 over the use of the highway patrol logo, contending the structures imply that the troopers who died at each location were Christians.

Utah attorneys have argued the memorials honor officers who lost their lives and encourage safe driving.

The American Atheists did not oppose the stay because the state agreed not to erect any new crosses while seeking a review of the case by the nation's highest court, the group's attorney Brian Barnard said.

Based on the split opinions on a rehearing, Barnard said he wasn't surprised by Utah's decision to appeal the case.

But Barnard noted that a Tuesday ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in another dispute over a 43-foot cross memorial in a San Diego-area park strengthens the ruling in the Utah case.

Citing the 10th Circuit Court's ruling on the highway crosses, a panel of 9th Circuit judges found the towering white cross on Mount Soledad in La Jolla, Calif., as unconstitutional because it "primarily conveys a message of government endorsement of religion."

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In a 50-page ruling, judges said that although the cross has been the centerpiece of a war veterans memorial since the 1990s, the context of its history, including religious and nonreligious uses, and the prominence of the cross, which towers over a San Diego freeway and can be seen for miles, led them to their conclusion.

As in the Utah case, judges said the prominence of the cross would leave a "reasonable observer," particularly drivers on Interstate 5, with the conclusion that the cross holds only a religious purpose.

"The decision out of the 9th Circuit is real strong and comes to the same conclusion that the 10th Circuit did in our case. It says, 'Hey, a cross is the ultimate symbol of Christianity,'" said Barnard. "It really strengthens our position."

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