Press Release

Atheists try to kick cross to the curb in Penn. county seal case Freedom From Religion Foundation suing to censor aspects of Lehigh County history and culture

Media Contact

Melinda Skea 202-349-7224 media@becketlaw.org

Additional Information

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lehigh County, Pennsylvania defended its historic seal in court today from a militant atheist lawsuit suing to scrub the seal of a religious symbol representing one aspect of the county’s rich history. In FFRF v. Lehigh County, the Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Lehigh County, demanding the county remove the image of a cross from the seal on the theory that it establishes Christianity as the official religion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit must decide whether the law requires stripping all religious symbols from the public square or, instead, protect them as a legitimate part of our country’s history and culture. (Watch Twitter Live statement here.)

The seal, which has been in use for over 70 years without complaint, features a cross, representing the county’s early German settlers who fled persecution in their homeland for religious freedom in America. The seal also features over a dozen other images – such as cement silos, textiles, a farm, the Liberty Bell, and a red heart – representing important aspects of the county’s rich history and culture. Becket represents Lehigh County before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing that the Constitution allows religious symbols in the public square in recognition of the importance of religion in our history and culture.

“FFRF is like the wicked witch of the west: A drop of religion and they scream ‘I’m melting!’” said Eric Baxter, VP & senior counsel at Becket, which is representing Lehigh County. “But flags with historically-significant religious images are part of American culture: New Mexico’s flag has the sacred sun symbol of the Zia Native American tribe, Louisiana’s has a Catholic symbol of a pelican with a bleeding heart to feed its hatchlings the Eucharist, and Utah’s has multiple images that recall the Mormon pioneers.”

Images of historic significance are common on the seals and flags of states, counties, and towns across America. Yet in 2016, FFRF sued Lehigh County, trying to censor the cross from the seal. In September 2017, a federal judge ruled in FFRF’s favor. Instead of applying the actual text and original meaning of the First Amendment, the judge felt bound by an old 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.)

But the Supreme Court has moved away from the 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 and that recognizing the role of religion in our nation’s history and culture does not violate the Constitution. Becket has also defended a World War II religious memorial in a Montana ski resort, a historic Pensacola park cross monument, and a 9/11 Ground Zero cross artifact, among others.

“There is nothing unconstitutional about using our flags and seals to accurately reflect history and culture—even if it happens to be religious,” said Baxter.

A decision is expected by early next year.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.