PHILADELPHIA -- A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a Pennsylvania county may keep the image of a Christian cross on its 75-year-old official seal.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said the cross did not amount to a government endorsement of religion, noting that it appears on Lehigh County's seal with many secular symbols and that it has taken on historical significance with the passage of time. The seal features a cross in the center behind a county building surrounded by other symbols in a circle around it, including a heart, a farm and a factory.
The court applied a new Supreme Court precedent about the display of religious symbols on public property,
"The Lehigh County seal fits comfortably within a long tradition of State and municipal seals and flags throughout our Republic that include religious symbols or mottos, which further confirms its constitutionality," the decision said. "It also abided over 70 years without complaint."
The appeals court's ruling came nearly two months after Supreme Court decided that a 40-foot-tall, World War I memorial cross completed in 1925 can continue to stand on public land in Maryland. In that case, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority that longstanding, religiously themed monuments and symbols enjoy a "strong presumption of constitutionality," and that removing them "may no longer appear neutral."
In Pennsylvania, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and four of its local members objected to the cross's inclusion on the county seal and sought an order for its removal. A lower court ruled for the Wisconsin-based atheist group in 2017. Lehigh County — whose seat is Allentown, Pennsylvania's third-largest city — appealed.
Thursday's ruling was believed to be the first to apply the Supreme Court's reasoning in the Maryland case.
"We're obviously extraordinarily happy with the outcome," said Lehigh County spokesman Joshua Siegel. He said Lehigh officials wanted to "protect the history of the county and the historical value of the seal as opposed to its religious underpinnings or meanings."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the appeals court decision was expected in light of the recent Supreme Court guidance.
"We're appalled," she said. "It's not just a blow to the Constitution, but it's a blow to what our country is supposed to be founded on and aspire to, which is to welcome everybody and not to take sides on religion."
Religious-liberty advocates said the courts have given state and local governments new tools to ward off complaints about religious symbols on monuments, seals and other government property.
"I just think local governments will start to wise up, especially their lawyers, when they get these threat letters," said Diana Verm, senior counsel for Washington-based Becket Fund For Religious Liberty, which represented Lehigh County.
There's at least one other pending federal court case that's been impacted by the Supreme Court decision. The justices ordered a lower court to re-evaluate earlier decisions that a cross that was first put up in 1941 at a public park in Pensacola, Florida, should be removed.