Cross in Pennsylvania County Seal Upheld on Appeal

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The Third Circuit threw out a court challenge Thursday against a Latin cross that has appeared on a Pennsylvania county seal for nearly 75 years.

Lehigh County’s attorneys noted in court filings that the use of religious imagery follows a trend of state and local governments all around the country. The Lehigh seal is pictured in the second row, fourth from the left. (Image via The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

Next month will mark 12 months since the case went for oral argument, but U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman noted that the three-judge panel reserved their judgment until the Supreme Court decided a similar case involving a World War I monument called the Bladensburg Peace Cross.

This past June, in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the Supreme Court was unanimous that the “94-year, challenge-free history of the Bladensburg Peace Cross (including over 50 years of ownership by the government) … entitled it to a ‘strong presumption of constitutionality.’”

So too is the case with the Lehigh County seal, Hardiman ruled.

An atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation initiated the challenge in 2016, arguing that the cross violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by promoting only Christianity. 

In defense of the cross meanwhile, Lehigh called the seal a historical symbol that honored settlers of the county.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Hardiman said that the seal is entitled to the presumption of constitutionality that applies to all “established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices.”

The seal contains several other symbols that represent the county, but Hardiman agreed the cross is “undeniably the focal point.” Yet this alone does not make the seal unconstitutional, the court found.

“Whether historical, patriotic, cultural, or economic, they are all secular symbols,” Hardiman wrote. “The seal as a whole therefore ‘suggests little or nothing of the sacred’, even though the Latin cross alone has undeniably religious significance.” 

Hardiman also noted that the challenge at issue was the first ever brought against the seal since its creation in 1944. 

Diana Verm, an attorney for the county with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, praised the Friday reversal. 

“It is common sense that religion played a role in the lives of our nation’s early settlers,” Verm said. “Recognizing that is just as constitutional as honoring symbols like the Liberty Bell. It is only right that Lehigh County can continue honoring its history and culture.” 

U.S. Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause and U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas concurred. 

Marcus Schneider, an attorney for the challengers with the law firm Steele Schneider, did not respond to email seeking comment. 

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