Another cross to bear
TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO
Just about a year ago, I sided with Lehigh County officials who appealed a federal court judge’s ruling that the cross in the county’s seal was unconstitutional.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on this case Friday, which has gotten nationwide attention. The court must now decide whether to uphold the opinion of U.S. District Court Judge Edward G. Smith or to overturn it and send it back to the lower court. It gave no timetable as to when it might rule on the appeal.
Last September, Smith backed the arguments of an organization and four Lehigh County residents that the cross in the county seal needs to be eliminated because it violates the Freedom of Religion clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Although Smith from a personal point of view didn’t seem to want to do it, he said he was compelled because of case law to agree with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to issue his ruling.
The Lehigh County Commissioners feel an important principle is at stake, so it has pursued the case, claiming that the cross does not represent the county’s endorsement of Christianity; instead, they insist, it is merely one symbol in the seal that speaks to the heritage of the county since its creation more than two centuries ago.
Smith ruled, however, that the cross serves “no discernible, secular purpose,” so it is unconstitutional. Smith wrote in his ruling that a “reasonable person” in looking at the seal could conclude that the county is endorsing Christianity.
Gee, I consider myself a reasonable person, but I do not come away with this conclusion. I decided to conduct an unscientific survey of other “reasonable persons,” so I walked the streets of Slatington and randomly showed a photo of the county seal to 15 adults of varying ages.
I gave them no background information and asked them to inspect the photo to determine whether they found any religious overtones in the photo or whether they were offended by what they saw. Almost all of the persons I spoke to had not heard about the county seal controversy; just two of the 15 had, but even they could not remember what the issue was all about.
After inspecting the photo, not one person had a clue as to what I was talking about. When I pointed out the cross, none had picked up on it. Most zeroed in on the heart and the Liberty Bell, which are among a number of other symbols on the seal.
Eric Baxter, the attorney representing the county, asked the appeals court to use a new test that the U.S. Supreme Court developed to determine whether images or long-standing practices violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution addressed the separation of church and state in the First Amendment with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
I said when this suit was first brought that it was meritless. This is a classic “tempest in a teapot” issue — creating a controversy when none exists. Just as my Slatington experiment showed, I am guessing that very few county residents were aware of the existence of a seal, let alone know what’s in it.
This Freedom From Religion Foundation is a tenacious bunch. It has been on the county’s back for nearly four years to modify the seal by excluding the cross. It’s not as if it and the county residents involved in the suit are trying to make a financial killing. They are asking merely for $1 in damages and reimbursement for litigation costs.
According to the Lehigh County Historical Society, the seal also shows the American and Pennsylvania flags. A heart on the seal represents the city of Allentown, the county’s and region’s largest community and county seat. This encircles two books and a lamp of learning symbolizing the importance of education. Buntings symbolize the once-thriving clothing industry that was prevalent in the county. The Lehigh County Courthouse, the Liberty Bell, the head of a bison, a cow, a barn, farmland and smokestacks of a cement mill all symbolize the importance of farming, industry and open space throughout the county.
Now 74 years old, the county seal is used on official documents, stationery and decals and is prominently on display as a screen-saver in the county commissioners’ meeting room in Allentown.
Not once has the county seal been used to promote or advance Christianity as the county’s preferred religion. In fact, the growing religious diversity of the county signals just the opposite.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org