Federal judge urges lawyers to reach settlement in dispute over Stow, Ohio, seal

Thursday, August 6, 1998

A federal judge in Ohio has ordered lawyers on both sides of a battle over a town seal containing a Latin cross and Bible to try to reach a settlement within a month.

The law director for Stow, Ohio, a small town near Akron, said the only way the case could be settled was if a new seal were created to reflect the importance of religion while also meeting the concerns of the state American Civil Liberties Union.

In order to encourage the creation of a new seal, Tom Watkins, Stow's law director, offered a $250 reward on Tuesday to anyone who designed a logo acceptable to both sides. Watkins added that the reward money would come from his own pocket.

“I pray that someone will design an acceptable seal and I can give them this reward,” Watkins told the Akron Beacon Journal.

The ACLU sued Stow last year, demanding the seal be dumped because its Christian symbols violate the separation of church and state. Before filing the lawsuit, the ACLU sent a letter to Watkins noting that the U.S. Supreme Court had just let stand a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a town seal similar to Stow's ran afoul of the First Amendment's clause prohibiting government establishment of religion.

Initially, Watkins and several of Stow's city council members agreed with the ACLU. Because of pressure from Stow citizens, however, the seal has remained appearing on town stationery and letterhead, government vehicles, flags, the town hall and on town tax forms.

J. Dean Carro, a law professor at the University of Akron, said that Stow should try to represent the importance of “spirituality,” instead of focusing on Christian symbols. Carro, nonetheless, said he was pleased that U.S. District Judge Sam Bell urged the two sides to seek an end to the legal battle.

“There are thousands of town seals throughout this country that are not being attacked on religious grounds,” said Carro, who is also a cooperating attorney with the state's ACLU and involved in the litigation. “I'm confident that people of good intention and good faith, working towards a common goal, can achieve almost anything. Any time that parties, among themselves, can resolve their differences, they are better off.”

Carro said that after 30 days the two sides would go back before Bell to discuss progress on a settlement. A trial is scheduled for November.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a national law firm and educational group dedicated to fighting for rights of Christians, is helping Watkins defend Stow's seal.

John Stepanovich, the senior ACLJ attorney involved in the case, said the negotiations are simply an effort to comply with the federal judge's request to try to reach a settlement.

“Make no mistake, I believe strongly in the town's case and we are ready to go to trial if need be,” Stepanovich said.

Stow officials have argued that the seal, which is divided into four quadrants that also contain secular symbols such as an outline of the state, represents all religions and does not amount to an endorsement of Christianity.

The ACLU, however, has maintained that the seal includes religious symbols and that there “can be no mistaking that there is a religious message being communicated by a governmental official seal.”