A federal judge has ordered a Pennsylvania county to get rid of its seal that prominently features a Latin cross. The order follows up on a major court victory the Freedom From Religion Foundation obtained against Lehigh County in September.
"The Lehigh County seal adopted by the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 28, 1944, and all subsequent adaptations and versions of it that are currently being used or displayed and that feature the Latin cross (collectively the 'Lehigh County Seal') violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," says the order issued by U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith.
Smith prohibited any use or display of the seal by Lehigh County after 180 days. However, the 180-day timeline will not start until any appeal by the county has concluded.
The judge also awarded nominal damages to each plaintiff in the amount of $1. During the appeal, the county is prohibited from implementing any new uses of the seal beyond those that are currently being practiced.
In his September decision in favor of FFRF, the same judge noted that the Christian cross, which both parties agree is "the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity," dwarfs other symbols on the seal and therefore shows unconstitutional county endorsement of a particular religion.
"The undisputed facts demonstrate that the county's original purpose for including a cross on the seal is not secular," Smith added. "The county's stated reason for retaining the seal in 2015 was to honor its original settlers who were Christian."
The federal lawsuit was filed in August 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The co-plaintiffs with FFRF 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.
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."
In his initial ruling, Smith granted FFRF's motion for summary judgment and requested that the plaintiffs provide a proposed injunction. With this legal action, that step has been fulfilled.
In response to FFRF's legal triumph, the Board of Commissioners voted 6-3 to appeal the case, unnecessarily prolonging the proceedings.
"We are fighting on behalf of the Constitution — and we shall prevail," 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 almost 900 and a chapter in Pennsylvania. FFRF warmly thanks its four local plaintiffs who made possible the lawsuit: John Berry, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, and Candace Winkler.