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Atheists file lawsuit to force county to remove this symbol from its official government seal

Posted September 8

Atheist activists are suing a Pennsylvania county to force the removal of a cross that is included in the design of the local government's official seal.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based activist group, is charging that the Latin cross image in Lehigh County's seal poses a Constitutional violation, as some say it appears to endorse Christianity.

"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," reads a Freedom From Religion Foundation statement announcing the lawsuit. "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 atheist group is seeking a ruling that would find that the religious symbol is unconstitutional and would, thus, prevent the county from displaying it. Such a mandate would force its removal from stone buildings, government documents and flags, among other places where the seal is used.

Additionally, the organization is seeking attorney's fees and compensation for injury to secularists' rights, Lehigh Valley Live reported.

A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania last week by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and local residents Stephen Meholic, John Berry, David Simpson and Candace Winkler — a move that came after officials made it clear last year that they had no plans to change the seal.

It was in March 2015 when commissioners unanimously voted to send The Freedom From Religion Foundation a letter detailing their refusal to remove the cross from the seal. It's presence, they argued, has historic significance.

"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," read the letter written by county solicitor Matthew Sorentino. "As such, it does not violate the Establishment Clause (of the U.S. Constitution)."

While the battle appears to just be heating up, the dispute between the two parties started back in 2014 when The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent its first complaint letter about the seal.

According to WCAU-TV, the cross design dates back to the 1940s and was originally included in an effort to honor early Christian settlers to the area. The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that this is entirely inappropriate.

"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," the group's co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement. "A redesign to comply with the Constitution is imperative."

But the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, a coalition of preachers from around the state, has encouraged the county not to change the seal, arguing that faith has played an integral role in the nation's fabric and history.

"The truth — and a very inconvenient truth for FFRF — is that from its inception, our nation has recognized the hand of divine providence, and our Constitution clearly protects, not prohibits, the freedom to acknowledge and worship God in our public activities and symbols," Sam Rohrer, president of the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, said in a statement. "We urge Lehigh County officials not to cave to these threats but to stand boldly for truth and religious freedom."

This is hardly the first time that a battle over religious imagery on a government seal has unfolded, with a similar debate raging in Clayton, New Jersey, this year.

And in another dispute involving the Los Angeles County seal, a judge ruled in early 2016 that the decision to include a cross in a 2014 redesign was a violation of the state's constitution; the cross has since been removed.

A similar battle broke out in DeLand, Florida, back in 2013 over the presence of a cross, but that seal has not been changed.

Speaking about these cases more generally, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that works to protect religious freedom, told The Christian Post in 2013 that these cases tend to be subjective and that there is no sweeping Supreme Court ruling that covers all cities and localities across America.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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