ACLU says Missouri town’s official seal advertises Christianity

Monday, March 9, 1998

REPUBLIC, Mo. (AP) – The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the official logo of this southwest Missouri town, saying the fish symbol it contains is “a secret sign of Christianity.”

The Republic Board of Aldermen will consider the question at its meeting Monday, Mayor Doug Boatright said.

“The city has to formulate a response” to the complaint brought by the private civil rights organization, he said.

The ACLU alleges the fish symbol on the city seal violates the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion by government.

Local and regional leaders of the ACLU said they urged the logo change after receiving several complaints.

Boatright said anyone in town who might have objected to the symbol could have gone directly to city leaders, and those concerns would have been respected.

“People in Republic are not too shy in (voicing) their opinions on something if they think the city government is doing something they don’t like,” he said.

The city’s logo was chosen in a communitywide design contest in 1990, Boatright said.

The logo includes a Missouri map showing Republic’s location, an extended hand denoting the city’s hospitality, and a silhouette of a family to illustrate the city’s family-friendly atmosphere.

The fish stands as a symbol that the community holds dear religious faith in general and moral values, Boatright said. “It’s not promoting any specific religion.”

Changing the logo, used on everything from official papers to city vehicles, would be expensive and inconvenient, Boatright said.

In a letter to Boatright, ACLU volunteer attorney Doug Bonney of Kansas City said the city’s definition of the fish as a universal symbol of religion is incomplete.

The fish is a symbol of Christ and was used by early Christians as “a secret sign of Christianity,” Bonney wrote. The fish symbol is used often today in advertisements to denote a Christian-owned business, he said.

Bonney urged Boatright to have the city “modify its seal immediately so as to delete the fish symbol and replace it with a secular symbol.”

The Rev. Dorsey Levell, executive director of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, said the fish was used in the catacombs as a sign for Christians who were being persecuted in the times following the crucifixion of Jesus.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, Levell said, without taking sides in the Republic case, the fish “means Christianity.”

Gay Revi, a Springfield homemaker and representative on the ACLU’s Ozarks and regional boards, said she is glad to hear Republic will look at the fish-logo issue. She said the group received “several phone calls” from people complaining.

Ralph R. Smith, Ozarks chapter ACLU president and a Southwest Missouri State University communications professor, said the ACLU keeps complaints confidential.

Smith said the ACLU received one written complaint, a letter from a Republic resident. Verbal comments came from “a number of other people” in the Springfield area, he said.

The ACLU will send no representative to Monday’s meeting in Republic, Revi said. “This is a matter for the city to discuss.”

Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the ACLU’s western Missouri and Kansas chapter, said in at least one case, a court ordered a city to eliminate the use of a cross in its logo.