Appeals Court Rules That Cross in Seal of Pennsylvania County is ‘Plainly Constitutional’

The flag and seal of Lehigh County, Pa. Images via court documents

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a Lehigh County, Pa., seal that contains a cross, citing a recent Supreme Court decision.

The unanimous ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, issued Thursday (Aug. 8), overturns a lower court decision that found the seal violated the establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.

The nation’s highest court ruled in June that the Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Md., which was dedicated by the American Legion in 1925 and stands in a traffic circle, is constitutional. The appeals court, describing its decision as consistent with that ruling, said the seal is not a constitutional violation.

“The Latin cross at issue here no doubt carries religious significance,” reads 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.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and four of its members sued in 2016 after commissioners of Lehigh County declined FFRF’s request to stop using the seal, which contained an image of a cross behind the county courthouse, along with other images related to farms and industries. The seal was adopted 75 years ago and is used on the county’s flag, vehicles and website.

The appeals court opinion said the district court applied a three-pronged test used since the 1971 Supreme Court decision in the Lemon v. Kurtzman case. The Lemon test has been used to determine whether a government agency has a secular purpose for a religious symbol, while requiring that it primarily “neither advances nor inhibits” religion nor fosters “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

The appellate court ruled the Lemon test, which it noted has been ignored in some similar past cases, does not apply in the seal case.

“As the Supreme Court held in American Legion, such longstanding symbols benefit from ‘a strong presumption of constitutionality,’’’ Hardiman wrote in the opinion. “And because the thin record in this case does not overcome that presumption, we will reverse the District Court’s order.”

The appellate court said both it and the Supreme Court, as stated in the Bladensburg Cross decision, have now found that the Lemon case “does not apply to ‘religious references or imagery in public monuments, symbols, mottos, displays, and ceremonies.’”

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Source: Religion News Service