PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A Pennsylvania county argued to the Third Circuit Friday afternoon that it should not have to remove a cross on its seal because it is historical, not religious.
An atheist group, Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued Lehigh County in 2016 over the seal, which included a Latin cross. In September 2017, a federal judge deemed the cross unconstitutional and ordered the county to remove it.
But Eric Baxter, an attorney with Beckett Law Firm representing the county, says that the cross is merely a historical symbol to honor the county’s settlers.
“There is nothing unconstitutional about using our flags and seals to accurately reflect history and culture—even if it happens to be religious,” Baxter said in a statement Friday.
Marcus Schneider, representing FFRF, pushed back on that claim.
“The cross has no connection to the settlers,” Schneider told a three-judge panel Friday. “A Conestoga wagon might better represent the settlers.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman questioned why Schneider was surprised the seal still had a cross on it.
“How do you say it’s so egregious when it’s gone 70 years without a complaint?” Judge Hardiman said.
Baxter stressed that while the original purpose of the seal may have been religious, the present purpose is purely historical and cultural.
“You’re asking us not to focus on the original purpose, but the recent purpose,” U.S. Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause said, referring to Commissioner Harry D. Hertzog, the seal’s designer. “But we don’t have a record about the current understanding.”
In 1944, the year Hertzog designed the seal, he said the cross in the center represents the Christians who settled in Lehigh County.
Schneider insisted the present-day purpose of the cross on the seal is still based in religion.
“The seal has not just remained on the wall of the courthouse for years; it’s been widely spread throughout the county on vehicles and a website that obviously did not exist when the seal was created,” Schneider said.
Judge Hardiman considered other religious holdovers in government.
“If I’m someone who’s opposed to government entanglement with religion, and I live on any of the Virgin Islands, then that’s really going to bother me anytime I write a letter,” he joked.
U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas pointed out the other symbols on the seal – which include bison and cement factories – bear no relation to Christianity.
“Coercion doesn’t mean forcing someone to recite a prayer – it can be more passive,” Schneider said. “This is a pretty cut-and-dry case. It promotes religion, and only one religion.”
A decision on the appeal is expected early next year
“FFRF is like the wicked witch of the west,” Baxter said in a statement. “A drop of religion and they scream, ‘I’m melting!’”