FFRF continues battle against theocratic Pa. county symbols

LehighSealThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is continuing its legal fight against a very Christian Pennsylvania county seal and flag.

FFRF and several local members sued Pennsylvania’s Lehigh County last year to remove a Latin cross from its seal and flag. The state/church watchdog recently filed a summary judgment motion in the case.

“The commissioner of Lehigh County who designed the seal in 1944 placed that ‘huge, canary-yellow’ cross in the middle of the seal to signify Christianity and the ‘God-fearing people’ who he believed made up the ‘foundation and backbone’ of Lehigh County,” states the FFRF brief. “In the eyes of the plaintiffs — and the reasonable observer at the heart of this motion — the Latin cross still endorses Christianity today.”

FFRF is a plaintiff, along with four county residents: Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, John Berry and Candace Winkler. FFRF’s local members find the presence of the cross on a seal representing the entire county to be exclusionary and offensive. “This is precisely the sort of endorsement the Establishment Clause is designed to protect against,” the brief says.

The plaintiffs have encountered the symbol on governmental property and documents, numerous official county forms and reports, the county’s website, in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags displayed at the entrance of county buildings. “This is not a seal that was adopted generations ago and long since forgotten — it is present in the everyday life of Lehigh County citizens,” FFRF’s brief contends.

FFRF first complained to the county in November 2014 and again in January 2015. (Allentown, the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, is located in Lehigh County.) Following several meetings about the controversy, the Board of Commissioners sent a reply a couple of months later, noting: “The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian.”

Members of the public clearly view the Latin cross as having religious significance. Among representative responses to FFRF’s complaint from members of the public was this message from a local citizen: “Jesus’ words ‘fear not’ should give you strength to win one for the cross. The people of the state’s prayers are with you. Go with God in your effort to prevail over this clear and present evil.”

FFRF and its co-plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that the religious symbols on the county seal and flag are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction against displaying them, nominal damages, costs and attorney fees.

“County officials should abandon their defense of obviously theocratic symbols,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “They need to quit promoting religion.”

The litigation is being handled by Marcus B. Schneider of Pittsburgh, with assistance from FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Liz Cavell. The case, 5:16-cv-04504, is before U.S. District Judge Edward Smith, a President Obama appointee, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization with more than 28,000 nonreligious members and chapters all over the country, including 800-plus and two chapters in Pennsylvania.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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