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September 29, 2017

Judge: Pennsylvania county can't use Christian cross in seal

A federal judge has ruled that a Pennsylvania county can't use the Christian cross in its seal.

Eastern District Judge Edward Smith wrote in his Thursday ruling that while his court didn't believe including the Latin cross in Lehigh County's seal violates the Constitution, he wasn't in a position to overturn previous case law on the issue.

Freedom From Religion Foundation/Source

Pictured is the Lehigh County flag (top) and seal (bottom).

Smith wrote: "... the inclusion of the cross lacked a secular purpose both when the defendant adopted the seal and when the defendant refused to remove the cross from the seal, and a reasonable observer would perceive the seal as endorsing Christianity."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the county in August 2016, arguing Lehigh "is not a Christian county" and that including the cross on the seal, which is also on the county flag, was unconstitutional.

The group had requested the county remove the cross on two previous occasions, to which Lehigh officials eventually responded by saying the symbol was a tribute to the Christian settlers who founded the area.

Smith said that the Constitution's authors included the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause to prevent the establishment of a national religion, and that by including the cross, Lehigh was only celebrating the country's Christian values and not imposing religious beliefs on its residents.

However, federal courts have adopted the "endorsement test," part of which requires determining if a "reasonable observer would perceive the display as a government endorsement of religion."

Per the test, if a government symbol could be perceived as such, or lacks any secular purpose, then it violates the Constitution.

Applying the test, Smith reluctantly ruled in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"Lehigh County’s Seal is a passive symbol that does not coerce any citizen to practice or adhere to Christianity, and does not establish a county religion," he wrote.

"Higher courts, however, have delineated a different mechanism by which the court must determine whether the Seal survives constitutional scrutiny."

The foundation now has two weeks to propose an injunction that would bar future use of the seal.