A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania County whose seal features a cross.
Lehigh County was sued by Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which claimed the cross amounted to an establishment of religion and was therefore unconstitutional. The law firm known as Becket represented Lehigh County and argued that the U.S. Constitution allows communities to maintain religious symbols in the public square in recognition of the significant role of religion in the country's history and culture. (See related stories)
"It is common sense that religion played a role in the lives of our nation's early settlers. Recognizing that is just as constitutional as honoring symbols like the Liberty Bell,'" says Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. "It is only right that Lehigh County can continue honoring its history and culture."
"This is a great victory," says attorney Stephanie Taub of First Liberty Institute, which filed a friend-of-the-court-brief in the case. "This shows that government does not have to scrub all official references to God or religious faiths in its religious symbols."
This is the first major decision to apply the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association. In that case, the high court allowed a cross-shaped memorial for WWI soldiers in Maryland to stay.
"That was a case that was brought by my law firm, First Liberty Institute, and it held that longstanding memorials and other symbols are presumptively constitutional, whether or not they contain religious imagery," Taub explains. "So our victory in that case from just a few months ago is already making an impact."
First Liberty Institute's friend-of-the-court brief in the Lehigh County case involved religious imagery in county seals and other symbols across the nation.
"We looked across the nation at the history of invoking God, invoking religion, and it's not just the Christian faith that's invoked," Taub continues. "You have symbols that, for instance, use Mormon imagery or Native American imagery as well."
But Taub isn't ruling out other cases going to court.
"I'm sure that this is just the first in a series of cases that will be interpreting The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, so we are very optimistic that the courts will put a stop to these kinds of frivolous lawsuits, which are a waste of taxpayer dollars and our courts' time," she adds. "There is a place for recognizing the role that faith played in our country."
The Lehigh County seal is featured on documents, letterhead, and many official county forms and reports. FFRF also said it was "in a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags displayed prominently at the entrance of county buildings."