Opposing sides in battle over Stow, Ohio, town seal discuss settlement

Monday, September 28, 1998

Both sides in a dispute over religious symbols in Stow, Ohio's town seal have met with a judge but apparently have not resolved the case.

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster, the third federal judge assigned to the case, which arose over a year ago, met in his chambers with members of the Stow City Council, Stow's law director and mayor, and the legal director of the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The conference was intended to give both sides the chance to hash out an agreement. If they do not settle, a summary judgment hearing is set for November.

Whether the conference produced anything meaningful remains unanswered. Representatives for both sides agreed not to discuss it publicly.

“Reporters from the area waited for hours, only to hear that we discussed the status of the case, but that all sides agreed not comment,” Gary Daniels, the Ohio ACLU litigation coordinator, said.

Daniels could not comment further, except to note the obvious – that the legal wrangle over the town seal has not been settled.

Tom Watkins, Stow's law director, told the town's weekly newspaper that “the council members who were there were enlightened by the experience,” and that he thought there would be “further deliberation.” Watkins also added that any settlement would be presented to the public for comment.

The seal includes images of a Latin cross and a Bible. The ACLU, representing some Stow taxpayers, sued the town last year seeking a court declaration that the town seal violates the separation of church and state. The group also sought an injunction against further use of the seal. The seal is used on town stationery, government vehicles, flags, the town hall and on tax forms. The ACLU sued the town only after an overwhelming majority of Stow voters in November rejected a council decision to change the seal.

Since that vote, council members, the mayor, the law director and the American Center for Law and Justice, a national, religious, conservative law and advocacy organization, have defended the seal. In their motion for summary judgment filed in June, the seal's proponents argued it “does not endorse any particular religion, or even religion in general, within the meaning of controlling decisions” of federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ACLU, however, maintains that the state is simply trying to secularize a Christian symbol in order to keep the seal.

“The Stow City Seal appears 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year in the City of Stow,” the ACLU argued in a motion for summary judgment submitted to the court in May. “The seal carries religious symbols, the Latin Cross and the Holy Bible, within the upper left hand quadrant. There can be no mistaking that there is a religious message being communicated by a governmental official seal.”