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Appeals court holding off decision on Lehigh County seal

November 11, 2018

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A federal appeals court says the fate of a Pennsylvania county seal containing a cross symbol is on hold pending resolution of a similar case in Maryland.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in September on Lehigh County’s appeal of a federal judge’s order that the county remove the cross from its seal. The appeals court said Thursday it will hold off pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of a cross-shaped war memorial outside the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Bladensburg, Maryland, The (Allentown) Morning Call reported.

County attorney Eric Baxter said the delay isn’t a surprise, given disagreement among courts across the country on how to determine whether religious symbols on public property constitute government endorsement of one religion over another. He said it could be June before the Supreme Court rules in the Maryland case.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and four of its local members filed the original complaint about the county seal, saying the inclusion of the cross constitutes an endorsement of Christianity. Judge Edward Smith wrote in his September 2017 opinion that, while he didn’t believe the symbol violates the Constitution, he was bound by precedent to side with the Wisconsin-based atheist group. Smith said the county could keep the symbol on older documents, but would have to change it on flags, cars or other property.

In its appeal, the county argued that a new precedent from the nation’s highest court allows for religious symbols to be viewed in a historical context in some situations. Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund, a nonprofit that says its mission is to protect free expression of all religious faith, said the cross is one of a dozen symbols on the seal and was meant to represent the county’s original settlers who were fleeing religious persecution.

The Lehigh County seal features a cross in the center behind a county building surrounded by other symbols in a circle around it, including a heart, a farmand a factory. Baxter said the seal had been the same for more than 70 years without drawing any complaints.

Foundation attorney Marcus Schneider responded that such a historical argument has no documentation. He said the cross is the flag’s most prominent feature and its religious meaning is “ubiquitous across the country.”

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

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