FFRF asks what’s the deal with religious seals

An FFRF complaint over the depiction of a chapel with a cross atop it on the new city seal in Steubenville, Ohio, initially had the city agreeing to change the logo, although the city now says it’s not so sure about the change.

On July 25, FFRF received word from the city law director that “the city council has agreed to change the logo as per your request.”

But Mayor Domenick Mucci announced several days later that city leaders will review offers of legal help and all other options before making a decision. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty plus several other unnamed Religious Right groups contacted the city offering “free” help.

Part of the silhouette prominently depicts Christ the King Chapel of Franciscan University with a cross atop it. The logo was commissioned by the city from Nelson Fine Art and Gifts, which claims it is the largest-volume American manufacturer of Catholic art and gifts.

By the logo designer’s admission, the chapel and cross are a symbol of “faith.” The depiction of the cross and chapel on the city logo is a “near copy of the Franciscan University logo, which further blurs the line between church and state,” said FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

After the decision went public, it created a media storm. Elliott, in a formal letter, cautioned city officials about being “duped by offers from Religious Right legal groups. They may volunteer their time pro bono but they never pick up the plaintiffs’ tab.”

For example, the Becket Fund defended the city of Cranston, R.I., from Jessica Ahlquist’s challenge to the unconstitutional prayer mural in her school. After the Becket Fund lost the case earlier this year, the school and city of Cranston officials agreed to pay $150,000 to reimburse the ACLU of Rhode Island for part of its legal fees.

“Any claims of historical or cultural significance to the Latin cross on the Steubenville City logo do not relieve the city of its constitutional obligations,” noted Elliott.

In July, Elliott also wrote the city of Wyoming, Mich., about a similar violation on its city seal, which is more than 50 years old and in need of an update. The seal features four quadrants, with a church, a factory, a house and a golf green.

“The city may not depict the church and cross because to do so places the city’s imprimatur behind Christianity. This excludes non-Christians and violates the Constitution,” Elliott wrote.

The Grand Rapids Press (July 31), in reporting FFRF’s complaint, noted that the city of Zion, Ill., which fought to keep a seal that included a cross and the phrase “God Reigns” in the late 1980s, spent about about $250,000 in a losing cause, as did Rolling Meadows, Ill., when it fought to retain a cross on its seal.

Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt commented Aug. 2 in a blog on the city’s website, calling FFRF a “third-party radical group.”

“It’s so clear why a city cannot and should not send a message that it is is a ‘Christian city,’ or favors Christianity or in the case of Steubenville, Catholicism,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. 

“Government cannot pick sides on religion. All citizens — whether Christian, Jewish, atheist or agnostic, Muslim, etc. — must be welcomed as full participants,” said Barker.

Freedom From Religion Foundation