Federal appeals court overturns decision banning cross from county seal


A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling that found the cross on Lehigh County's seal was unconstitutional.

The three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled unanimously that the inclusion of a Latin cross on the county seal does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The decision handed down Thursday overturns an earlier ruling in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania made by District Judge Edward G. Smith.

The seal has been in use for more than "70 years without complaint -- and no evidence suggests this was "due to a climate of intimidation," the judges noted in their decision.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of four members, who live in Lehigh County. The foundation argued that the inclusion of the cross constitutes an official endorsement of a religion on the part of the county.

County officials, meanwhile, argued the cross signified the area's German founders, who sought religous freedom, Lehigh County commissioners in 2017 hired the Washington D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to defend the county's position.

In its 18-page opinion, the appeals court noted that the county did not dispute that the individuals who brought the suit "experienced a variety of direct and unwelcome contacts with the seal." It's displayed in the county commissioners' public meeting room, on the county website, in the sheriff's office on real estate tax bills.

And while the seal is "undeniably the focal point of the Lehigh County seal," the cross does not stand alone, according to the ruling. The cross is surrounded by several other symbols representing Lehigh County, according to the judges.

"Whether historical, patriotic, cultural, or economic, they are all secular symbols," the judges found. "The seal as a whole therefore 'suggests little or nothing of the sacred,' even though the Latin cross alone has undeniably religious significance."

In short, the seal as a whole falls well short of establishing a religion," according to the ruling.

WFMZ's Bo Koltnow will have more on this story at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.