Judge Says Atheists Are Right: A PA County’s Christian Seal is Unconstitutional

In February of 2015, officials in Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) discussed what to do about their seal:

LehighSeal

That would be a Christian cross smack dab in the middle of the symbol. The Freedom From Religion Foundation had sent them a warning about how this was an illegal promotion of religion, but a month later, county officials announced that they would tell FFRF to shove it:

Commissioners voted 9-0 to direct the county solicitor to send a strongly worded response to the foundation stating their intention not to remove the cross from the seal.

“It is the position of Lehigh County that the presence of the cross on the seal among all the other items of historical significance has the secular purpose of recognizing the history of the county,” the response stated. “As such it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Accordingly, the county is not planning on removing the cross from the seal.”

They were seriously arguing that the giant Christian cross at the center of the symbol had nothing to do with religion. It was all about “history,” they said. The history of the Christian majority that was around in 1944:

According to Lehigh County Historical Society records, county Commissioner Harry D. Hertzog designed the seal, which was adopted in 1944. An undated Call-Chronicle story about the seal says the cross in the center of the shield represents “Christians who settled in Lehigh County.”

The atheists weren’t buying it. FFRF and four members of the Lehigh community filed a federal lawsuit against the County just over a year ago:

By adopting and displaying a seal and flag with a Latin cross, the county is violating the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The purpose is religious, not secular, and “has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing defendant’s preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion,” the plaintiffs contend.

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.

“Lehigh County is not a Christian county, it should be equally welcoming to all its citizens regardless of their religion or their reject of religion. A redesign to comply with the Constitution is imperative,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

It’s taken long enough, but a federal judge has finally ruled on this issue. And Judge Edward Smith echoed what atheists had been saying all along.

The law, as it currently stands, requires that the court rule in favor of the plaintiffs: the inclusion of the cross lacked a secular purpose both when the defendant adopted the seal and when the defendant refused to remove the cross from the seal, and a reasonable observer would perceive the seal as endorsing Christianity.

Smith spends a good chunk of his decision basically saying he didn’t want to rule this way because he knows this isn’t meant to be a promotion of Christianity. He even concludes, “While the court may not fully agree with the test provided, the court must apply that test.” That’s why he rules in favor of the atheists: the law requires him to apply the test of a what a reasonable observer, with no knowledge of the county’s history, would think. And that person would call this a promotion of Christianity regardless of what’s surrounding it.

FFRF called Smith’s ruling “begrudging,” but the conclusion is all that matters, and they’re happy with the result.

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.

It’s now up to county officials to choose a better design. They could’ve saved everyone a lot of trouble, though, if they had just listened to the atheists years ago.

(Thanks to @dinofant for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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