ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Lehigh County commissioners ended their formal defense against an atheist group who said it violated the separation of church and state.
During Wednesday night's meeting, the legislative body voted unanimously to no longer encumber a $100,000 legal services line item in the 2020 budget. The money will now be available to ensure the county's $25 million Stabilization Fund is maintained.
The funds are no longer needed as the county's legal counsel defending the case – the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty – said the Freedom From Religion Foundation's legal right to appeal has expired. As such, "there is no need to continue to encumber those funds for the 2020 budget," according to the motion.
The money was allocated in the event the county lost the lawsuit and had been responsible to pay for FFRF's lawyers. The Becket Fund did the work for the county pro bono, according to comments made Wednesday night by Commissioner Brad Osborne.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a lower court's decision regarding the matter Aug. 8. The 3-0 vote ruled that a depiction of a cross superimposed between a wreath of secular images on its official seal was indigenous to Lehigh County's history and was not discriminatory nor unconstitutional.
Osborne said the atheist group – a not-for-profit 501(c) 3 organization – could have appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, but did not.
In other business, the commissioners approved the Lehigh County Property Assessed Clean Energy Program by an 8-1 vote. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's consolidated statutes authorizes counties at their discretion to establish property assessed clean energy programs. The programs are designed to facilitate low-cost, long-term financing to owners of agricultural, commercial and industrial properties for energy efficiency, water conservation and renewable energy projects.
In voting against the program, Osborne cited several reasons, with one being that it "expands the role of county government." Further, Osborne noted the county just raised taxes on property owners.