In a 23-page decision, Judge Edward Smith begrudgingly ruled in favor of The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that promotes the separation of church and state.
In 2014 and 2015, the foundation threatened to sue Lehigh County if it did not remove the cross from the seal. The cross’ presence, it argued, violated the Establishment Clause, which forbids government from favoring one faith over others or prohibiting religious practice.
Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, John Berry and Candace Winkler — all Lehigh County residents and members of the foundation — joined the suit as plaintiffs. The four testified that they were opposed to the seal or found it unwelcome or offensive, according to court documents.
Commissioners refused to back down to the threats. In a resolution unanimously passed in 2016, commissioners argued the cross needed to be viewed in historical context. The cross, they said, represented the Christian settlers who colonized the region. The foundation filed suit last year as a result.
In his ruling, Smith said the cross was a passive symbol that did not coerce anyone into adopting Christianity or establish a county religion. However, existing case law required him to find that the county was honoring the settlers because they were Christians, which violates the Establishment Clause.
“While the court may not fully agree with the test provided, the court must apply that test,” Smith wrote.
Smith did not order the county to immediately remove the seal, but he asked the foundation’s lawyers to propose an injunction that would likely bar its future use. The proposal is due in the next two weeks.
In a news release Thursday, foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor spelled out what the organization has in mind moving forward.
“This welcome ruling should settle the matter and get the seal redesigned to be inclusive, to ensure that it does not continue to send a message that only Christian citizens are represented or welcome,” she said.
Lehigh County Board of Commissioners Chairman Marty Nothstein did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Thursday evening. County Executive Tom Muller declined to comment, saying commissioners dictated how to proceed on the suit.
Lehigh County commissioners adopted the seal in 1944 with the cross displayed prominently at its center. The seal also contains the historic Lehigh County Courthouse, a heart said to symbolize Allentown, a bison representing the herd at Trexler Nature Preserve, cement silos and bunting, among other symbols.
Lehigh County includes the seal on its flag, buildings, website, letterhead, legal documents and as a screen saver on displays in the county meeting room.