ACLU sues Missouri town, claiming its seal supports Christianity

Thursday, July 2, 1998

A civil-rights organization this spring warned officials in a small Missouri town that its city seal containing a Christian symbol would eventually prompt a lawsuit.

This week that group followed through on its promise by filing a federal action claiming the fish symbol in Republic's town seal violates the separation of church and state.

In May, the Board of Aldermen voted to keep the town logo with its inclusion of an ichthus — a fish symbol used by early Christians who lived under the Roman Empire. City officials maintain the symbol represents the town's commitment to all religion, not just Christianity. The logo designer, moreover, said she was unaware of the origin of the ichthus.

“I was very misinformed,” Marylin Schexsnayder, a resident who won a town contest in 1990 to design a town logo, told MSNBC. “I thought that that was just a symbol of religion, not Christianity.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, however, knew the origins of the symbol and in March told the town to drop it from the seal or face possible litigation.

Representing Jean Webb, a Republic resident, the civil rights group argues in the federal lawsuit that the town's “adoption and use of the seal which incorporates religious symbols does, in fact, constitute an endorsement and support of religion by the City in violation” of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Webb charges in the lawsuit that as a result of the town's adoption of the logo she has suffered “distinct and palpable injuries.” In part, Webb argues that after she made her opposition to the logo known she “received hate mail and harassing, belligerent telephone calls” from other residents of the town of about 8,000 people.

Additionally, Webb maintains she was forced to resign her position as a writer for the local weekly newspaper, The Republic Monitor, because of her opposition to the logo. Webb, a devotee of wicca, a nature-based, benign witchcraft, also says that an atmosphere of intolerance has engulfed the town making her afraid of “practicing her religion in accordance with her rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

When the First Amendment Center asked Larry Rottmann, editor of The Republic Monitor, whether Webb was fired from the paper for her opposition to the logo, he hung up the phone.

“No one is saying that Christianity is offensive — just that government should maintain complete neutrality — which protects Christians as well as non-Christians — from government mandated displays of faith,” Webb said in a statement released by the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

After the ACLU warning, the town began preparing for a costly legal battle. In May town officials voted to give a citizen group — the Support Republic Committee — the task of raising $100,000 to defend the logo. So far the committee has raised $12, 500. Paula Howell, one of the leaders of the drive, told The New York Times that there was nothing improper with the town's logo because “the majority of our community is actually Christians.”

A nonprofit group based in Virginia, however, has stepped in to provide free representation for the town. David Huggins, staff attorney for the National Legal Foundation, said that his group decided to take the case partly because it disagrees with the ACLU's absolutist view on the separation of church and state.

“We believe that the establishment clause has not been violated” by the town, Huggins said. “We are hoping that the court will see the logo as permissible, despite the fact it contains a Christian symbol.”

Huggins claims the logo is “merely an acknowledgment of the role religion has played in the community's history.”

Asked about alleged mistreatment of Webb, Huggins said that she should be free to practice her religion without harassment.

David Kurtenbach, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said that Republic's use of the logo has “in essence declared the town a Christian community.”

Kurtenbach also chides town officials for “trying to dumb down” the meaning of the fish.

“The officials are trying to fit into this country's principle of separation of church and state a symbol rich in Christian history,” he said. “I think this exercise represents the harm done to religion.”