Ohio town seal violates separation of church and state, federal judge finds

Friday, December 18, 1998

A Christian symbol in an Ohio town seal would give an observer the impression that the government was endorsing the faith, a federal judge has said in upholding a challenge to the seal.

The Stow, Ohio, town seal – adopted in 1966 and including a Latin cross and Bible – violates the separation of church and state, U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster ruled Dec. 16.

Last year a group of Stow citizens, represented by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the town in federal court arguing that the use of the cross amounted to a blatant government endorsement of Christianity.

Town attorneys, with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit educational and legal firm that advocates a greater place for religion in public life, disagreed. They argued before the judge that taken as a whole, the seal did not endorse a particular religion. The seal, which is divided into four quadrants, also contains a sketch of a factory, an outline of the state and a scroll with a quill and ink bottle.

Polster is the first federal district judge within the 6th U.S. Circuit to decide the constitutionality of a municipal seal containing a religious symbol. Three federal appeals courts have ruled on such situations, with only one ruling that a town seal with a religious symbol did not violate the First Amendment. Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee make up the 6th Circuit.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, upheld an Austin, Texas, seal that contained a Latin cross. That decision relied primarily on the fact that the cross in the town seal was also part of Texas pioneer Stephen Austin's family coat-of-arms.

Polster said government officials must be careful when acknowledging religion.

“This is a country that celebrates religion,” Polster wrote. “Indeed, Thanksgiving was created, and is still celebrated today, as a national religious holiday. Our money says 'In God We Trust.' While an atheist might take offense at this motto on our money, or the recognition of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, general references to a higher, spiritual authority must be permissible in order to give full effect to the Free Exercise Clause.

“On the other hand, clearly sectarian symbols, which unmistakably refer to one faith's religious beliefs and practices, generally violate the Establishment Clause when used by a governmental entity on a daily basis,” Polster said.

Stow's use of the cross – a symbol the U.S. Supreme Court has called “the principal symbol of Christianity around the world” – in its town seal, however, could be seen as a government endorsement of Christianity, Polster said.

“The Stow City seal, as it is currently depicted, does indeed have the effect of advancing and promoting the Christian religion,” Polster wrote. “A 'reasonable observer,' when looking at the Stow seal on official documents, vehicles, etc., would conclude that there is some official connection between the city and Christianity. This is precisely what the Constitution of the United States prohibits.”

Gary Daniels, litigation coordinator for the Ohio ACLU, lauded Polster's decision.

“Of course we are pleased,” Daniels said. “The decision vindicates what we have been saying all along; that city seals with such religious symbols violate the separation of church and state.”

It is up to the Stow City Council whether to appeal Polster's ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Christine Link, executive director of the Ohio ACLU, said the city had already spent about $60,000 to support its legal battle for the seal. “Hopefully, this decision will serve to put an end to this divisive and expensive matter,” she said.

Stow's mayor told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland yesterday that he was not sure the City Council would have the energy or desire to continue the fight. “I think we've given it a fair shot,” Mayor Donald Coughlin said. “This could drag on for another two or three years. Religious issues have brought out emotions.”

Polster noted community tension spurred by the legal wrangle between the state ACLU and Stow officials.

“The sad part of this case is that two years ago, probably less than 10% of the residents of Stow even knew that the city had a seal, and most likely only a fraction of those could describe what was on the seal,” Polster wrote. “Now, almost everyone knows that one quadrant of the seal has a Christian cross. The issue has become very divisive to the community.

“While there is no evidence that the community leaders who adopted the seal more than 30 years ago had the intent in any way to 'establish' the Christian religion in Stow, or that the present Stow government is trying to turn Stow into a Christian city, the heavy local publicity that has surrounded this litigation and the tension it has created in the community could only have the effect of causing non-Christians in Stow to feel like outsiders,” he said.

Jim Henderson, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, called Polster's decision ridiculous.

“Obviously he erred if he rested the decision on an endorsement test,” Henderson said. “There are an array of religious and nonreligious meanings associated with the cross and it seems bizarre for the federal judge to conclude that a reasonable observer would believe endorsing religion is essential to be a part of the community.”

Henderson said one of the problems with these types of cases is that “there is no evidence offered that any citizen has been denied the right to vote or has been deprived of police protection or other essential city government service based on a failure to adhere to Christianity.”

Henderson added that he hoped Stow officials would appeal the ruling to the 6th Circuit. “Eventually the Supreme Court will decide cases like this one.”