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3rd Circuit upholds cross on county seal, citing Supreme Court’s Bladensburg cross ruling

by | Aug 13, 2019

When the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a large, free-standing memorial cross to remain on government land in Bladensburg, Maryland, earlier this year (American Legion v. American Humanist Association), BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman noted in her analysis of the opinion that the Court relied heavily on the particular facts of the case. The extent of the decision’s reach into other disputes remains to be seen. A ruling issued by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week offers the first case to lean heavily on the Bladensburg decision.

The seal of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh County appears on government-owned property, on government documents, and on the county’s website. It was the subject of a religious liberty complaint, which claimed that the association of the religious symbol with the government amounted to an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. A trial court agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled that the seal violates the Establishment Clause. The 3rd Circuit, however, reversed that ruling.

A unanimous three-judge panel held that, after the Bladensburg case, a long-standing display enjoys a “strong presumption of constitutionality.” And, the Lehigh County seal had been in place for nearly 75 years. The court also cited the Bladensburg case for the proposition that, while a Latin Cross is Christian, it also has other secular meanings. Here is an excerpt from the decision:

The Latin cross at issue here no doubt carries religious significance…. But more than seven decades after its adoption, the seal has become a familiar, embedded feature of Lehigh County, attaining a broader meaning than any one of its many symbols. The County recognized this “historical significance” and the seal’s representation of “elements that were important to the early settlers” of Lehigh County in its 2015 decision to retain the seal. The County also noted the cross “honor[s] the original settlers of Lehigh County who were Christian.”

Notably, no one agrees on how long a display has to be in place before considered “long-standing.” The Bladensburg cross had been standing for nearly 90 years when challenged in court; the Lehigh County seal had been in place for nearly 75.

What does seem clear, as Hollman’s analysis emphasized, is that the Supreme Court’s ruling does not authorize governments to create new Christian-only displays. Furthermore, a government is certainly not required to maintain existing Christian symbols on government displays. County seals can be redrawn, and sometimes they should be.

A cross on an official insignia of the government does Christianity no favors. For some, it implies favoritism and sends a signal to non-Christians that they are less than equal citizens. For others, it harmfully dilutes the significance of an important religious symbol.

For more information and perspective on American Legion v. American Humanist Association, see BJC’s Bladensburg cross case resource page.

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