ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A prominent professing atheist group has filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to have a cross removed from the seal of a Pennsylvania county.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed the legal challenge on Monday and is seeking a declaration that its inclusion on the county seal is unconstitutional.
“Lehigh County is not a Christian county, it should be equally welcoming to all its citizens regardless of their religion or their reject of religion,” said Co-Founder Annie Laurie Gaylor in a statement.
According to the suit, in November 2014, FFRF sent a letter to County Executive Thomas Muller over the matter but received no response. It then sent another letter in January 2015, and soon afterward, the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners decided not to cave to FFRF’s demands.
Members of the public also contacted the board to express their support for retaining the cross on the seal, and commissioners voted unanimously to have the county solicitor respond to FFRF to outline that the cross would remain.
It believed that the cross was included to honor the first settlers in Lehigh County, who were Christian.
“It is the position of Lehigh County that the presence of the cross on the seal among all the other items of historical significance has the secular purpose of recognizing the history of the county,” the reply stated. “As such it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Accordingly, the county is not planning on removing the cross from the seal.”
But the four plaintiffs in the case, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, John Berry and Candace Winkler, who are all members of FFRF, state that the image is offensive and suggests that residents who are not Christian are inferior.
“As a resident of Lehigh County, Mr. Meholic has been subjected to viewing the seal, which he finds offensive,” the complaint reads.
“Mr. Simpson would like Lehigh County to recognize the diversity of the Lehigh County population in the 21st Century and remove the Latin cross from the county seal,” it states.
“Ms. Winkler opposes the inclusion of a Latin cross on the seal and feels excluded from her community by the county’s use of this Christian symbol,” the suit asserts.
FFRF says that complainants have seen the symbol both on the county flag and on official correspondence.
“The display of the Latin cross by Lehigh County has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing Defendant’s preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion,” its complaint asserts.
The atheist activist group would like for the district court to declare that the cross violates the plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and to place an injunction against its inclusion in the county seal.
The Pennsylvania Pastors Network has expressed its support for the cross, stating that FFRF’s opposition is “not only a hostility toward Christianity, but also gross ignorance of our nation’s founding documents.”
“[L]et us not forget the religious character of our origin,” American statesman Daniel Webster also declared during his famous “Plymouth Oration” in 1820, less than 50 years after the nation’s founding. “Our fathers were brought hither for their high veneration for the Christian religion. They journeyed by its light and labored in its hope. They sought to incorporate its principles with the elements of society, and to diffuse its influence through all their institutions, civil, political or literary.”