A federal judge has sided with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its local members in declaring unconstitutional a Latin cross on a Pennsylvania county seal and flag.
U.S. District Judge Edward Smith's decision against Lehigh County, Pa., can only be described as begrudging. But he concedes that "a reasonable observer would perceive the county seal as endorsing Christianity." Smith noted that the yellow Christian cross, which both parties agree is "the preeminent symbol of Christianity," dwarfs other symbols on the seal and therefore shows unconstitutional county endorsement. Also see the order.
Adds the judge: "The undisputed facts demonstrate that the county's original purpose for including a cross on the seal is not secular. The county's stated reason for retaining the seal in 2015 was to honor its original settlers who were Christian, and the county clarified that it based this reasoning on an interpretation of Commissioner [Harry] Hertzog's statements."
The federal lawsuit was filed in August 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, naming Lehigh County as sole defendant. FFRF's co-plaintiffs are four of its local members who've objected to encountering the religious symbol on county property. The seal is on documents, letterhead, many official county forms and reports, the county's website, in a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags displayed prominently at the entrance of county buildings.
The board adopted the imagery that appears on the seal in 1944. Allentown, the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, is located in Lehigh County, with a population of about 350,000. Local institutions include the Catholic DeSales University.
After FFRF complained, creating a minor firestorm, the Board of Commissioners sent a reply averring: "The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian."
Smith granted FFRF's motion for summary judgment and requested that the plaintiffs provide a proposed injunction within 14 days.
FFRF warmly thanks its four local plaintiffs who made the lawsuit possible: John Berry, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, and Candace Winkler.
"This welcome ruling should settle the matter and get the seal redesigned to be inclusive, to ensure that it does not continue to send a message that only Christian citizens are represented or welcome," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The litigation is being handled by Marcus B. Schneider of Pittsburgh, with assistance from FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Elizabeth Cavell.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 29,000 nonreligious members and chapters all over the country, including more than 880 and a chapter in Pennsylvania.