Republic, Mo., defends use of town logo as a proper nod to religion

Tuesday, July 21, 1998

Attorneys representing Republic, Mo., in a legal battle over the town's use of a Christian symbol in its seal have argued the use is not an endorsement of religion.

In legal papers filed last week with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, the town answered a lawsuit by maintaining it did not know whether the ichthus – a fish symbol used by early Christians who lived under Roman Empire – is exclusively a symbol of Christianity.

Represented by the National Legal Foundation, a nonprofit religious-liberty group based in Virginia, the town argued that its use of the logo, which was designed by a resident in 1990, does not endorse any religion. Instead the group argues that the symbol merely acknowledges the importance of religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri sued the town earlier this month in federal district court in Missouri claiming the use of the logo violates the separation of church and state.

The civil liberties group is representing Jean Webb, a resident, who says the town's residents and government are not tolerant of minority beliefs and religions. Webb alleges that the town has “prominently displayed” the logo on public buildings, facilities, flags, signs and vehicles. Moreover, she claims the logo controversy has forced her to alter her own religious practices to shield herself and her children from harassment and ostracism in the community. Webb is a devotee of wicca, a nature-based, benign witchcraft.

“The desire to correct an imbalance, to educate on standing First Amendment rights, to address the harm done to me, and to seek legal intervention preventing further harm to others of minority religious beliefs, was, is, and always will be my intention in becoming involved in this action,” Webb said in statement about the suit. “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.”

Republic officials, however, argued in their answer to the ACLU suit that the logo does not violate Webb's or any other resident's religious liberty.

Steven Fitschen, National Legal Foundation president, derided the ACLU for bringing the suit.

“This is part of a pattern of lawsuits brought by the ACLU to remove every vestige of religion from public life,” Fitschen said. “The attitude is that religion is fine in private but not in the public. The problem is, as United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has noted, religion, unlike pornography, cannot be kept strictly private. Rather, religion by its very nature has a public element. The people of Republic surely can acknowledge the role of religion in their community without creating a constitutional crisis.”

Gay Revi, a local ACLU board member, said the fish drawing is a symbol steeped in Christian history and meaning.

“The ACLU is surprised to hear that the city of Republic is denying the ichthus' religious meaning,” Revi said. “The city's own official publications describe the fish as 'the ancient symbol of religion.' Now, the ACLU finds itself in the somewhat unusual position of defending the integrity of a Christian symbol as city officials try to dumb down the meaning of the ichthus.”

David Huggins, staff attorney for the National Legal Foundation, disagreed with Revi's position that the ichthus has always been a symbol of Christianity.

“The meaning of the symbol is something that still has to be explored,” Huggins said. “The ACLU claims it has always symbolized Christianity. We don't know whether it has exclusively been such a symbol.”

Huggins also said that even if the symbol is exclusively Christian, the town still has a constitutional right to use it in its logo.

“I think there has been an overreaction to the effects of the symbol,” he said. “To call the city's use of the seal a violation of the establishment clause is a misreading of our Constitution. This is not at all what Jefferson and Madison had in mind. In fact Jefferson proposed, for a national seal, a depiction of the children of Israel crossing the desert as described in the book of Exodus.”