Appeals court rejects atheist group’s attempt to censor symbols of Lehigh County’s history and culture

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WASHINGTON – Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, is free to continue honoring its history and culture with its 70-year-old seal, including an image of a Latin cross. In FFRF v. Lehigh County, a federal appellate court today rejected an attempt by the Wisconsin- based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation to censor the image of a cross from Lehigh County’s historic seal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled 3- 0 that after the Supreme Court upheld the Bladensburg Cross war memorial as a historic monument, Lehigh County can maintain its seal as a symbol that “has become part of the community.”

“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,’” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “It is only right that Lehigh County can continue honoring its history and culture.”

Lehigh County’s seal, which has been in use for over 70 years without any complaints, features a cross representing the county’s early German settlers who fled persecution in their homeland seeking religious freedom in America. The seal also features over a dozen other images – such as grain silos, textiles, the Liberty Bell, and a red heart – representing important aspects of the county’s rich history and culture.

Becket represented Lehigh County, arguing that the Constitution allows communities to maintain religious symbols in the public square in recognition of the significant role of religion in our history and culture.

Images of historic significance are common on the seals and flags of states, counties, and towns across America. But in 2016, FFRF sued to try to censor the cross from Lehigh County’s seal. In September

2017, a federal judge ruled in FFRF’s favor, following a Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, which requires courts to guess whether the government is trying to “endorse” religion whenever it mentions God or religion (What is the Lemon Test? Watch this short video).

 

Becket argues that judges must apply the actual text and historical meaning of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has since moved away from the so-called Lemon test, ruling that religious symbols in government and in the public square that were acceptable at our nation’s founding are still acceptable today. The court today followed that precedent. Becket has also defended a World War II religious memorial in a Montana ski resort, a 9/11 Ground Zero cross artifact, and a historic Pensacola park cross monument, among others.

 

“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,” said Verm.

 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202- 349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

 

Additional Information:

 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win- rate before the United States Supreme Court. For 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

 

Information provided to TVL by:
Joshua Siegel
Public Information Officer
County of Lehigh, Office of the County Executive
17 S. 7th Street, 4th Floor, Suite 436
Allentown, PA 18101
www.lehighcounty.org