Sunday, September 29, 2013

Symbolism & Seals

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently wrote a letter to Mayor Robert Apgar about the seal of the city of Deland, Florida. In the letter, they noted that Deland’s seal contains “symbols that promote ‘Christian theological virtues’” and that a resident had sent them a complaint. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro sent this complaint and proposed that the religious symbols on the seal had negative psychological ramifications for non-Christians.
Deland’s seal does in fact have a cross on it, as well as a heart and anchor, but the city attorney argued in a letter that these symbols do not promote Christianity. The seal, he holds, traces back to the city’s founding and the symbols were chosen due to their symbolism of “faith, hope and charity.” In the 131 years of Deland’s history, the city has never had a complaint about the seal until now. This conflict has yet to see any legal recourse, but an attorney with Americans United is reviewing options.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion…” Court cases over the years have been called to interpret the Establishment clause on numerous occasions and certain key distinctions have aided in creating precedent. The phrase “wall of separation” and the idea that governments should be ‘neutral’ to religions have thus come to be associated with the First Amendment.
So does the Deland seal help establish Christianity and therefore must be removed or changed?
Precedent dictates yes. While the Supreme Court has yet to hear a case related to government seals, several lower courts have faced this issue and come to find that religious symbols like latin crosses or even a Mormon temple on seals violate the Establishment clause. Notable cases include Robinson v. City of Edmond, Harris v. City of Zion, and ACLU v. City of Stow.
Of cases involving seals and religious symbols, one case has in fact held that the seal in question did not violate the Establishment clause. In Murray v. City of Austin, the court used the Lemon Test to justify ruling the Latin cross in the seal constitutional. The secular purpose of the test was largely passed because the city based its seal on the Austin family coat of arms.
If I were to base my personal belief on the constitutionality of Deland’s seal on precedent, then I would have to agree with the lower courts: such a seal violates the Establishment clause as it endorses religion. I could support this further by applying the Lemon test that the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman Supreme Court case created. The Deland seal would fail the effects part of the test because it might advance Christianity with the religious symbol of a cross and because non-adherents to Christianity (like Rabbi Shapiro) could perceive the symbols as “a disapproval of their individual religious choices.”
Unfortunately, these arguments are inadequate for me.
I feel that if the national motto of “In God We Trust” has been upheld as constitutional, particularly because of its historical significance, then the symbols in Deland’s seal are constitutional as well. While Deland’s seal does not predate the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on coins, it certainly predates the 1956 establishment of the phrase as our national motto and thus has rival historical meaning. Historically, the US was founded on Judeo-Christian values so it makes sense that many local governments made the decision to include a symbol of faith like the cross as a part of their seal. The cross does not necessarily impose religion on anyone; it simply reflects the historical reality of Deland 131 years ago behind other symbols of hope and charity. If the attorney was correct that those behind the seal added the cross as a symbol of ‘faith,’ then the cross does not necessarily have to allude to Christianity but perhaps instead to the faith of the people in the city’s potential.

The United States has obviously been able to accommodate religious references and symbols in the past provided that they have historical significance, so I do not see why Deland should ever have to change their seal.


Gabby D. said...

I would argue that this seal is in violation of the Establishment Clause. Cori argues that this seal should be kept due to its historical value, however I do not see that as a very compelling argument. Just because our nation was founded upon "Judeo-Christian" values does not justify the current standing of the seal. Based on many other cases Cori listed, there is precedent to remove the religious symbol on the seal. Also, it is not our place to judge whether or not the seal is offensive to someone else. That point is irrelevant because this seal is breaking the Establishment Clause, no further argument needed.

Although the national motto, "In God We Trust" still exists on US currency, I believe this motto will become more and more of an issue until the Supreme Court will be forced to make a definite decision about religious names/symbols being on government (seemingly secular?) entities.

Nicole D said...

I agree completely with what Gabby has said, I do not think that the historical value behind this is enough to impose religious beliefs on all people under the flag. I definitly see it as a violation of the Establishment clause. I was also going to point out that while it is common place to compare situations like this to "In God We Trust," there is not a strong legal principle guaranteeing that this motto is constitutional, and the issue will most likely be questioned more and more in the upcoming years. Therefore, comparing this flag to the motto "In God We Trust" may actually serve to lessen the chances that it remain our motto in the future, as opposed to guaranteeing that the flag be kept.

Dan W said...

While I agree with previous comments that the seal violates the establishment clause, precedent states the establishment clause is not always followed. In my view, the national motto of "In God We Trust" is a greater violation of the establishment clause and thus if we are to allow that we must also allow a cross on a small town's city seal. I believe the establishment clause outweighs any arguments of Judeo-Christian values or tradition, but until we get serious about actually implementing the establishment clause correctly there simply isn't much of an argument for forcing the city to change their seal. If it were up to me, I would outlaw both the national motto and this seal, however I just don't see how the seal can be outlawed with the motto in place.

Jennie M. said...

I agree to some extent with Dan's comment that if the national motto "In God We Trust" still stands, then how can we say the imagery of a cross on a seal is unconstitutional? But since this is the case at hand and a resident has claimed that the seal promotes Christianity, I think this seal can still be said to violate the Establishment Clause despite the national motto currently in place. (We can also still hope that the motto is removed/revised at a later date).

The cross symbol is specifically associated with the Christian religion, and while it may not have been put in place to promote Christianity over other religions, that is how it is perceived and is functioning now. The ties between the state and religion are too close in this case, with the cross appearing on a city seal, so it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and should be removed from the seal.

Tyler J said...

As the many of the cases Cori pointed out exemplify: a seal is a neutral, state sponsored representation of a city and separation of state and church should be upheld with regards to them.
As I argued in Terry's post, I don't believe our national motto should be "In G-d We Trust", nor should it be on our money. That is an establishment of monotheistic religions of traditionally western nature. "Historical traditions" cannot be used as an argument because, quite frankly, 131 years is not that long, relatively speaking.
Furthering Gabby's argument, this seal is not even Judeo-Christian, it is simply Christian. If a city's seal had a Star of David or a Crescent Moon and Star, someone would immediately challenge such a seal because of an establishment of religion, even though religions like Judaism promote charity and faith.

Benjamin S said...

Personally I think that the decision for this case is clear. The cross is a blatant Christian symbol no matter how you spin its historical significance to the town. Thus I see this as unconstitutional for a violation of the first amendment under the establishment clause. However I agree with Cori’s argument of precedence. Since the Supreme Court has upheld the motto “In God We Trust” on our currency, I see them deciding the same for this case. The exact historical argument in the former case can be made here too. Despite this, I personally disagree that either of these instances are constitutional. I like Gabby’s comment about the Supreme Court having to revisit the decision, I think they should.