Fight over Stow, Ohio, town seal reflects divisions over public displays of religion

Friday, July 31, 1998

Although the First Amendment's establishment clause bars government from endorsing religions, does it follow that government also cannot include religious symbols along with secular images in official displays?

Government officials and citizens in at least two small towns — one in Missouri, the other in Ohio — are asking federal judges to uphold their town seals, both containing symbols of Christianity.

Citizens and town officials in Republic, Mo., are fighting to stave off a challenge by the state's American Civil Liberties Union to that town's seal, containing an ichthus – a fish symbol rich in Christian history. The ACLU says the symbol unconstitutionally endorses religion. The town's legal counsel, the National Legal Foundation, maintains it merely symbolizes all religions. That case has garnered national attention and appears destined for a trial before a federal court in the 8th U.S. Circuit.

A federal court in the 6th U.S. Circuit is faced with a similar situation.

Citizens and officials in Stow, Ohio, a small town not far from Akron, are also mired in a legal battle with that state's ACLU over the use of a seal. Stow's seal is divided into four quadrants, one of which contains a Latin cross and what the ACLU maintains is a Bible.

Shortly after the founding of Stow only a little more than thirty years ago, town officials conducted a contest for the creation of a town seal. Harold Baer, a retired artist living in Stow, designed the seal to show what he has described as images honoring the town's schools, neighborhoods, industry and churches.

In 1966, town officials adopted the seal. This year, town officials may have no choice but to dump it. The seal has been challenged before and two of the town's legal directors have publicly admitted it may have to go — for constitutional reasons.

A history of challenges

In 1988, an 18-year-old Stow High School student and avowed atheist complained of the seal to town officials and federal politicians, including then-President Ronald Reagan. James Martin, then Stow's legal director, publicly questioned the seal's constitutionality when he said the high school student “probably has some valid objections.” The student, however, was unsuccessful in persuading officials to change the emblem.

The seal, however, survived that controversy and has remained on the town's official stationery and letterhead, vehicles, income tax forms, flags and in its public buildings.

Almost 10 years later, in the summer of 1996, questions about the legality of the town seal arose again among citizens watchful of federal court decisions.

In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that invalidated a town seal in Edmond, Okla., containing a Latin cross. Tom Watkins, now Stow's law director, received calls that July from citizens asking about the ruling and whether their own seal was constitutional. After reading the federal decision out of Oklahoma, Watkins and Stow City Council President John Parker urged the creation of a new seal.

“Regardless of how you may feel about keeping the current seal, the reality is we have no legal standing to keep the seal as it is,” Parker said in a memo to city officials.

Saved by citizens

The council then narrowly voted to change the seal. That's when a group of Stow citizens got involved to save it. A citizen group formed and successfully petitioned to put the council decision to a test on the November ballot. On Nov. 4, 1997, the council's decision to change the seal was nullified by 58% of the voters.

The state ACLU then warned city officials they should ignore the vote and remove the seal anyway or prepare to defend it in court. Faced with a politically unpopular decision to override a voter referendum, the city council ignored the ACLU's warning and decided to keep the seal as is. On Dec. 16, 1997, the ACLU sued the city, calling the seal an impermissible government endorsement of Christianity.

Stow officials, however, remained defiant. First they asked a state judge to issue a ruling that the seal was constitutionally sound; the judge refused. Then they countersued the ACLU on the grounds it did not have standing to bring the suit.

Stow citizens have also raised their voices against the ACLU and in support of the seal and its Latin Cross. Joan Englund, the Ohio ACLU legal director, said she has covered her office door with hate mail from the community.

“There are individuals and groups in Stow and elsewhere that are very upset that the ACLU is asking the Stow government to conform to the Bill of Rights,” Englund said. “I think that the establishment clause, in particular, is not as well understood as it should be, and unfortunately it appears that religious intolerance is alive and well.”

Ed Gidley, a Stow citizen, said in a letter last year to the Akron Beacon Journal that he voted to keep the seal as is because as a Christian it was his duty to “share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Gidley added that to “remove the Christian symbol from our city seal is for me comparable to Peter's denial of Christ. It would be the same as saying that I deny that my God and my Christ played any role in the development of our country and our city.”

What courts have said

Stow citizens and some of its representatives may desperately want to keep the seal precisely because it is a patent government approval of Christianity, charge critics of the logo. The Ohio ACLU, however, has on its side a cadre of federal court rulings, including an action by the high court, that say government approval of town seals containing crosses violates the separation of church and state.

Indeed the only federal court decision allowing a seal similar to Stow's to stand against a First Amendment challenge comes from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, Austin, Texas, was permitted to keep its seal, which contained a Latin cross. That decision, however, relied heavily on the fact that the Latin cross in the town seal was also part of Texas pioneer Stephen Austin's family coat-of-arms.

Both the ACLU and Stow's attorneys have had summary judgment motions denied by the federal court. A trial is set for November. The question for the federal court is whether or not the Latin cross and apparent Bible in the Stow seal amount to a government endorsement of Christianity in violation of the state's constitution and the First Amendment's establishment clause.

The arguments proffered in both summary judgment motions foreshadow what both parties are likely to argue at trial.

The ACLU, representing a couple of Stow taxpayers who remain anonymous, argues that the Stow seal contains symbols of Christianity that run afoul of the separation of church and state.

The ACLU says every court “that has examined a symbol similar to that appearing in the upper left quadrant of the Stow seal has found it to be a Latin or Christian Cross,” and that the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts have recognized symbolism as an effective means of communication.

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court in West Virginia v. Barnette stated that “the Church speaks through the Cross, the crucifix, the altar and shrine, and clerical raiment. Symbols of State often convey political ideas just as religious symbols come to convey theological ones.”

In upholding a district court decision, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated in its 1985 decision that “the religious significance of the Cross, as of the crèche, is undisputed; the district court correctly observed that any statement to the contrary would be disingenuous.” The appeals court noted that “the Seal as used conveys a less tolerant time and foreshadows its return. Religious minorities may not be made to feel like outsiders because of government's malicious or merely unenlightened endorsement of the majority faith.”

The ACLU also noted that the Stow situation is “strikingly similar” to the one that arose out of Edmond, Okla. In that 1995 case, the 10th Circuit ruled that the city seal in Edmond did violate the establishment clause. Like Stow, Edmond adopted its seal in the 1960s and also included a Latin cross. The appeals court did not buy arguments by Edmond officials that its religious-based seal merely represented the historical development of the community. The appeals court agreed with other federal precedent that “the City may not honor its history by retaining the blatantly sectarian seal… . These symbols transcend mere commemoration, and effectively endorse the Christian faith.”

Stow's attorneys, however, argued in their motion for summary judgment that, taken as a “whole,” the seal does not subvert the separation of church and state. In a nutshell, Stow attorneys argued that the other federal court opinions should not matter in the 6th Circuit and that the Latin cross in the seal is not as religious as other types of crosses.

“However, there are different types of Latin crosses; some are more religiously oriented than others,” Alan Johnson and Watkins argued in their motion submitted to the federal court in June. “The cross in one quadrant of the Stow municipal seal is a stylized 'modern art' type of cross, apparently metallic rather than wooden, with no nail holes (as compared to the one in the Edmond case). Moreover, the quadrant containing the stylized cross in the Stow seal also contains an open book (which could be philosophical, religious, or other book, since it has no identifying characteristics).”

Also, the Stow attorneys maintained that the state ACLU had simply ignored that fact that “history is replete with examples of acknowledgment of religious belief in the public sector.” As examples, Stow attorneys noted that for two centuries Congress has permitted a daily prayer by paid chaplains and recognized as national holidays days “with undeniable religious significance, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

The ACLU responded to Stow's claims saying “there is no longstanding American tradition of including religious symbols on official government insignia.” Instead the ACLU maintained that in “several cities where this practice was attempted, it was struck down under the Establishment Clause, even where cities have argued that national or local history justifies the inclusion of religious symbols on a city or county seal.”

Englund said Stow's arguments demeaned the religious meaning of the cross. “Basically, Stow officials are attempting to turn things of religious nature into nothing,” she said. “They are attempting to extract religiosity from the symbol.”

Despite the heated rhetoric of Stow citizens in favor of the seal, Englund said, the suit was needed. “If you look at the writings of the Constitution's framers, you will see that they drafted the establishment clause to prevent these types of situations,” Englund said. “They were frightened of what would happen if government aligned itself with religion.”

As evidence Englund and the ACLU cited in their motion for summary judgment a 1774 letter of James Madison, often deemed the father of the Bill of Rights.

Madison wrote to a friend that had the Church of England been established throughout the colonies as it was established in Virginia, that type of “union of religious sentiments begets a surprising confidence, and ecclesiastical establishments tended to great ignorance and corruption; all of which facilitates the execution of mischievous projects.”