More First-Amendment shenanigans: Federal court rules that a Christian cross on a county emblem is not religious

In late June, the Supreme Court made a portentously bad decision, ruling that the “Bladensburg Cross”, a giant cross on public land in Maryland, did not violate the First Amendment’s stipulation of freedom of (and from) religion. (The vote was lopsided: 7-2.) The reasons was the usual one: that by merely existing for a long time, the cross had shed its religious significance—just like the National Motto, “In God We Trust”, is seen to be cultural rather than religious, ergo it gets to stay on U.S. currency. As I wrote at the time:

As usual, the pretense is that the cross is no longer a wholly religious symbol. Here are the words of Justice Alito, who wrote for the majority:

The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent . . .  For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark.

For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.

In other words, religious symbols are okay on public land because they have assumed other meanings as well. And we must have “respect and tolerance” for believers. But why a cross rather than a religion-neutral monument? Would the court be so tolerant of a Jewish Star of David, or a statue of Ganesha? Of course not, because they see America as a “Christian nation”.

Now an equally bad ruling, from a Federal appeals court, cites the Bladensburg decision as a precedent, as I knew would happen. The pretense that religious symbols lose their religious significance over time is a mindset seriously threatening our cherished separation of church and state.

You can read about that decision at the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF; click on the screenshot below).

The issue at hand was the seal of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, which is shown below. As you can see, there’s a Christian cross figured prominently in the center.

A religious symbol on a secular governmental seal should be unconstitutional, and, in a suit brought by the FFRF earlier, they prevailed in a lower court. But the appeals court, citing the Bladensburg precedent, overturned that decision. For now, the seal can stay, and I doubt that the FFRF will appeal to the Supreme Court, which will just affirm the appeals court because the Supremes are, by and large, religious conservatives and Christian nationalists.

From the FFRF report:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, and four individual plaintiffs won resoundingly in district court in 2017 when a judge found unconstitutional the Lehigh County seal that features a prominent cross. “The undisputed facts demonstrate that the county’s original purpose for including a cross on the seal is not secular,” Judge Edward G. Smith had ruled in 2017.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia unfortunately relied on the Supreme Court’s recent Bladensburg cross decision to rule the clearly Christian seal acceptable.

The opinion, written by Judge Thomas Hardiman, who was rumored to be on President Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court, says that the 3rd Circuit was bound to uphold the seal and cross because of the Bladensburg ruling. Hardiman holds that, after Bladensburg, “longstanding symbols benefit from ‘a strong presumption of constitutionality,’“ by which he means, “longstanding religious symbols.” The seal dates back to 1944.

The alarming nature of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bladensburg judgment can be seen in this opinion. Instead of protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority, Hardiman rules that the majority can trample the First Amendment in the name of their religion, concluding that the seal “has become part of the community.”

“Part of the community”. Yes, that is the flimsy ground on which the First Amendment will founder. After x number of years, any religious symbol, according to the courts, loses its religious patina and becomes a “part of the community.”

Well, not MY community, which is secular and atheistic. And if it’s no longer religious, why is it always religious groups defending things like the Bladensburg cross?  Believe me, it’s not because the cross is a cultural icon.

Indeed, the court affirmed the Christian background of the symbol:

FFRF’s appellate brief, filed in April of last year, highlighted the bedrock constitutional principles that the Christian seal violates as the symbol of Lehigh County government.

The federal lawsuit was filed in August 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Co-plaintiffs with FFRF are four of its local members who’ve objected to encountering the religious symbol on county property. The seal is on documents, many official county forms and reports, the county’s website, in a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags displayed prominently at the entrance of county buildings. The board adopted the imagery that appears on the seal in 1944. (Allentown, the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, is located in Lehigh County, with a population of about 350,000.)

After FFRF complained, creating a minor firestorm, the Board of Commissioners sent a reply that proved the state/church watchdog’s point: “The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian.”

That’s why it’s incongruous that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found the Lehigh County seal acceptable.

FFRF lawyer Andrew Seidel, taking the long view, says that this “cultural heritage” nonsense will eventually pass as the U.S. becomes more secular. But the thing is, I’d like to see this happen in my lifetime, and it won’t.

21 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    sub

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it convenient that religion can survive and assert its power using objects that are superficial and apparently don’t mean what they mean, like the cross on this seal.

  3. KD
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Ironically, the more secular America becomes, the more crosses become “cultural heritage”.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 5, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point except I don’t think it’s ironic. I think it is precisely how religion works.

  4. Posted September 5, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    We’ll know when the country has become sufficiently secular when no one wants to put up the money to paint the crosses and keep them looking good.

  5. Blue
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Oooo, in re ” that by merely existing for
    a long time ” and as one who ‘as ( many times,
    just barely ) survived through eons of
    .all. of Life’s matters and aspects within
    androcentrism and patriarchy, this specific
    ‘argument’ for A(ny) Thing … … is,
    by now, soooo, so angeringly tiring.

    Blue

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The Supreme Court should just get their outfits from the Vatican since they all get their law from the same place. They could wear those nice Pope hats and put big iron crosses around their necks.

  7. greg geisler
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Disturbing but not shocking.
    On a related note I ran across this article today: https://www.si.com/college-football/2019/09/04/clemson-dabo-swinney-religion-culture

    This is a literal cult operating out of a college.

    • Historian
      Posted September 5, 2019 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      Good article. Sports and religion, particularly in the South, have been bound together in an unholy alliance for probably a hundred years. It will not go away anytime soon. Just think of Tim Tebow.

  8. rickflick
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    “…honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian.”
    What if the original settlers were Jewish or Muslim? You think they’d bother to honor them with an appropriate symbol? The local Xian preachers would yell bloody murder.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 6, 2019 at 1:47 am | Permalink

      I suspect the original settlers were Indians. Oops, sorry, ‘Native Americans’. No?

      cr

      • rickflick
        Posted September 6, 2019 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Good point.

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    These Christian nationalists with their zeal and determination to insert Christianity into everything reminds me of Kyle’s description of the Terminator in the original Terminator movie:

    Understand. That the Terminator is out there. It can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with…it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear…and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    The opinion, written by Judge Thomas Hardiman, who was rumored to be on President Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court …

    Putting out a list during his campaign of Federalist-Society-approved candidates from which Trump committed to making his SCOTUS nomination(s) must have put a lot of pressure on the judges named on the list to audition for the job with their opinions, or at least not to rock the right-wing boat by writing anything off the charted course.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    They’re all scared shitless of a slippery slope — first it’s the crosses, then phrases like “under God” and “in God we trust,” and the next thing you know the heathens are clamoring to have God’s waiting room in St. Pete, FL renamed “Petrograd.”

  12. tomh
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    OP:
    “I’d like to see this happen in my lifetime, and it won’t.”

    Exactly right. The way Trump/McConnell are packing federal courts with young, right wingers, bent on protecting the privileges of religionists, we can expect to see more of this kind of ruling, if anyone even bothers to bring a suit to challenge the status quo.

    Not surprisingly, these same cross-bearing judges are hell-bent on protecting the privileges of the gun fanciers. For instance, Hardiman,as an appellate judge, sided with two plaintiffs challenging a federal law banning felons from owning guns. He’s been described as a ‘Second Amendment extremist’ by Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and expert on Second Amendment issues.

    This is what the next generation has to look forward to. Crosses and guns at every turn.

  13. Matt
    Posted September 5, 2019 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Michael Behe must be thrilled.

  14. Posted September 6, 2019 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    After x number of years, any religious symbol, according to the courts, loses its religious patina and becomes a “part of the community”.

    I think there is something to it. Take
    this flag. It would be understandable to me if some people wanted to change it, because it contains the flag of an oppressor nation in the top left canton. I’ve never heard of a First Amendment objection to it, possibly because nobody thinks of the Union Flag as a religious symbol, but it is composed of the Cross of Saint George, the Cross of Saint Patrick and the Cross of Saint Andrew.

    The Union Flag has definitely lost its religious significance, although it took a couple of hundred years.

  15. Posted September 6, 2019 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Who started this “not religious, but cultural” general excuse? By all rights, religions *are* part of culture, just like science, technology, art, and so forth. Different *content* in each case, so beware “they are all the same” stuff.

  16. Posted September 6, 2019 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    This series of ruling is a paradigm example of why “setting a bad precedent” is really a thing.


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