The Freedom From Religion Foundation is filing an appellate brief confident that its victory over an unconstitutional Pennsylvania county seal will be upheld.
FFRF and four individual plaintiffs won in district court last September when the judge found that the Lehigh County seal, featuring a prominent cross, was unconstitutional. The judge noted that the Christian cross, which both parties agreed is “the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity,” dwarfs other symbols on the seal and therefore shows unconstitutional county endorsement of a particular religion. In a follow-up move two months later, the same judge ordered the county to stop using the seal.
The county appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that the Supreme Court's Lemon test should not be applied to this case and that numerous seals and flags from other state and municipal governments demonstrate an “unambiguous and unbroken” history of using religious symbols by the government.
FFRF’s appellate brief highlights the bedrock constitutional principles that the Christian seal violates and the fact that the seal with a Latin cross is the symbol of Lehigh County government. “Given the record in this case, the court must conclude what any reasonable observer would: The county has a religious purpose for maintaining the county seal, just as it did when it designed the seal 70 years ago,” the brief states.
The district judge’s ruling supports FFRF’s contention.
“The undisputed facts demonstrate that the county's original purpose for including a cross on the seal is not secular,” Judge Edward G. Smith said. “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. 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 that proved the state/church watchdog’s point: “The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian.”
FFRF’s brief goes on to argue the unconstitutional effect of the seal.
“As the widespread symbol of government power, the seal’s ability to affiliate Lehigh County with its Christian endorsement is enhanced,” the brief states. “The seal is the symbol of the local government and the one place the government can clearly associate itself with a message to be sent to its citizens.”
“Lehigh County is emphatically not a Christian county, as its seal portrays,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “It is home to citizens of many and no religious persuasions and must welcome them all. Its seal is exclusionary and unconstitutional.”
The litigation is being handled by Marcus B. Schneider of Pittsburgh, with assistance from FFRF Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Elizabeth Cavell.
FFRF warmly thanks its four local plaintiffs who made possible the lawsuit: John Berry, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, and Candace Winkler. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 33,000 nonreligious members and chapters all over the country, including 900-plus and a chapter in Pennsylvania.