Lehigh County Seal Containing Cross Deemed Constitutional
The official Lehigh County seal of a Latin cross surrounded by historic, patriotic, cultural and economic symbols is Constitutional, declared the Third Circuit on August 8, 2019, following the guidance recently provided by the United States Supreme Court in American Legion v. American Humanist Ass’n.
In November 2014, The Freedom From Religion Foundation (“FFRF) wrote Lehigh County to assert a complaint about Lehigh County’s seal and asked for its discontinuation. When the County refused, the FFRF initiated a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging the seal violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Originally before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of PA, on cross motions for summary judgment, the trial Court held the seal unconstitutional under the Lemon test as modified by the endorsement test. Specifically, the trial Court found that the cross lacked a secular purpose and a reasonable observer would perceive it as an endorsement of religion. The County appealed. During the pendency of the appeal, the United States Supreme Court considered the case of American Legion v. American Humanist Ass’n. In a 7-2 decision issued June 20, 2019, the SCOTUS clarified that the Lemon test no longer governs cases involving religiously expressive monuments, symbols or displays. Prior to such ruling, to withstand a challenge of violation of the Establishment Clause, the monument, symbol or display would have needed to serve a secular purpose, have a principal or primary effect that neither advanced nor inhibited religion, and not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. The abandonment of the Lemon test by the SCOTUS paved the way for Lehigh County to prevail before the Third Circuit.
Longstanding community symbols, like the Seal of Lehigh County which was adopted December 1944, now have a “strong presumption of constitutionality” which had not been overcome in this case. As FFRF was unable to show any “discriminatory intent” by Lehigh County in maintaining the Seal with the Latin Cross or “deliberate disrespect” in the original design, the strong presumption of constitutionality for this established, religiously expressive symbol stands. So this familiar, embedded symbol of Lehigh County shall remain.
Attorney Kimberly Krupka is a partner in Gross McGinley’s Litigation Group. Kim regularly represents regional hospitals and large health networks as well as corporations in legal disputes at the local, state, and federal levels.