Written by Don Byrd

A federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled unconstitutional the official seal and flag of Lehigh County because the design features a cross prominently among its symbols. Adopted in 1944, the cross was included to signify “Christianity and the God-fearing people which are the foundation and backbone of [Lehigh] County.” 

In granting the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, Judge Edward Smith ruled the design violates the Establishment Clause both because it lacks a secular purpose and because it would be perceived as an official endorsement of Christianity.

Here, the judge explains why the seal fails the “endorsement test:”

In this case, the reasonable observer would know that the cross is a symbol of Christianity, that the settlers of Lehigh County were Christian, and that Commissioner Hertzog designed the Seal with the God-fearing people of the County in mind. . . . It is true that the Seal includes various secular symbols that highlight other features and values of the County. But the largest and most central symbol is the yellow Latin cross, which the parties agree is the preeminent symbol of Christianity. In looking at the size and placement of the cross, which dwarfs the other symbols on the Seal, the value that the County places on Christianity, and Christianity’s role in the County’s history, is unmistakable.

…In this case, neither the longevity of the Seal nor the secular symbols surrounding the cross detract from the religious message that a cross conveys to the reasonable observer. 

Notably, the judge did not seem pleased that the law requires him to rule the seal unconstitutional. He writes:

The County has not…compelled its citizens to practice and conform to Christianity, infringed on freedom of conscience, or created political conflict between the Christian Church and other religious sects. Simply put, the County of Lehigh did not intend to “establish” religion or institute a County religion when it adopted Commissioner Herzog’s design for the Seal…

While such considerations appear to be a matter of common-sense in determining whether a government has established a religion in violation of the First Amendment, binding precedent has taken the inquiry in a different direction.

You can read the opinion here.

Last year, a judge similarly ruled unconstitutional the seal of LA County, California because of the addition of a cross to the design.