Third Circuit Upholds Use of Latin Cross on Lehigh County Seal

Whenever you are in the Lehigh County Courthouse or Government Center, you will inevitably encounter the Lehigh County Seal in different parts of the buildings.  The Seal was adopted by the Lehigh County Commissioners in 1944 and commemorates the history of the County.  The Seal contains many symbols reflective of Lehigh County’s roots.  There are symbols celebrating the Liberty Bell, the Game Preserve, Lehigh County’s agricultural history and the cement industry. 

One other symbol on the Seal is the Latin Cross which is in the center of the Seal partially obstructed by a depiction of the Old Lehigh County Courthouse.  It is the Latin Cross that was the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation on behalf of a group of Lehigh County citizens.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found against Lehigh County and held that the Seal violated the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.  On August 8, 2019, the Third Circuit reversed in an important First Amendment decision.  The Third Circuit in Freedom From Religion Foundation vs. The County of Lehigh, held that there is a strong presumption of constitutionality for established religiously expressive monuments, symbols and practices.  The Court was particularly guided by the long history of use of the Latin Cross on the Seal and its being displayed with other important icons of Lehigh County.  Ultimately, the test adopted by the Court following a recent United States Supreme Court case is whether there was a discriminatory intent in adopting the particular symbol.  The evidence in this case was that Lehigh County placed and maintained the Cross on the symbol to honor the original Christian settlers of the County.  As such, the Court found there was no discriminatory intent in placing the Cross on the Seal.

Finally, and interestingly, the Court noted that a contrary finding may be reflective of governmental hostility towards religion which would be as problematic as governmental favoritism of a particular religion.  The Court commented that if Courts had to eradicate all symbols that had some religious origins, then perhaps Lehigh County’s second largest city, Bethlehem, would no longer be allowed to utilize that historic name.

For discussions on this area of law and a variety of other employment law topics, please register for our 2019 Labor and Employment Seminar which will be held on September 18, 2019.  To register, click the following link and fill out the registration form: