The cross at the literal center of the County of Lehigh Pennsylvania’s seal has been deemed constitutional by an appeals court, some 75 years after its original design.
Citing the recent Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of the Bladensburg Peace Cross, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously that the Lehigh seal in question did not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment. This will overturn the previous decision of a lower court.
“The Latin cross at issue here no doubt carries religious significance,” read the opinion written by Circuit Judge Thomas M. Hardiman. “But more than seven decades after its adoption, the seal has become a familiar, embedded feature of Lehigh County, attaining a broader meaning than any one of its many symbols.”
Four members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Lehigh County in 2016 after officials refused to stop using the seal. The seal, which contains the image of a cross behind the county courthouse, appears on county flags, vehicles, and their website.
The Lemon Test
Until quite recently, the Lemon test (named for the 1971 Supreme Court decision in the Lemon v. Kurtzman case) has helped determine whether legislation regarding religion is constitutional or not. The Lemon test requires that the legislation must have a secular purpose, must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
Despite that, the appeals court opinion, citing the recent Bladensburg Cross case, decided the Lemon test simply does not apply to ‘religious references or imagery in public monuments, symbols, mottos, displays, and ceremonies.’
Senior Counsel Diana Verm, whose law firm represented Lehigh County and has defended the use of crosses in other public displays, insisted “this decision is another nail in the coffin of the Lemon test, making room for our nation’s founding principle that religion is not a blight to be scrubbed from the public square, especially when it represents our history.”
Similar monument controversies have popped up all over the country in recent years. Notably, an otherwise sleepy South Carolina city scrubbed and eventually removed a memorial to fallen police officers that featured scripture from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor characterized this most recent decision in Pennsylvania as ultimately detrimental to the 30 percent of non-Christians in the U.S.:
“We predicted this outcome after the blow dealt to the Constitution by the ‘Mitch McConnell’-molded Supreme Court in the Bladensburg case. Our framers were first in history to adopt an entirely godless Constitution with no deity, no Christianity, no bible or Ten Commandments in it. So we are extremely alarmed at the signals the high court is sending to lower courts, and the precedent in Bladensburg.”
What are your thoughts? Are these Christian symbols tantamount to government endorsement? Should we remove them, regardless of their historic significance? Or is scrubbing every religious reference from county seals and government property an exercise in futility?