Commissioners to appeal ruling on county seal cross
Lehigh County Board of Commissioners voted Oct. 11 to appeal U.S. District Judge Edward Smith’s ruling in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in its suit against Lehigh County’s continued use of a Latin cross in the county seal.
The 6-3 vote came after an executive session during which commissioners discussed the case.
In the public session, three commissioners — David Jones, Geoff Brace and Dan Hartzell — voted against appealing the decision.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in August 2016 on behalf of several local residents who objected to the Latin cross featured in the center of the seal and flag.
Hartzell, who identified himself as a Christian, commented to The Press during an interview.
“The cross in the seal never bothered me,” Hartzell said.
Hartzell added he did not think the case is winnable but would instead be a waste of “several hundred thousand dollars” of taxpayers’ money.
In an interview, Patrick Elliot, senior counsel with the Wisconsin-based FFRF, estimated similar cases have cost defendants between $140,000 to $200,000.
Elliot said at some point the winning side would be reimbursed their fees by the losing side.
Lehigh County Assistant County Solicitor Thomas M. Caffery, who is representing the county in the case, declined to estimate what the cost might be.
Caffery said he is on salary with the county, so he will not bill the work.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation also commented.
“We’ve won,” Gaylor said. “We are confident we will win the appeal.”
She was not happy the judge qualified his decision by claiming to be unhappy about it.
“The judge [Smith] sent signals of his displeasure” in favor of the defendants,” Gaylor said in an interview.
The website ChristianPost.com quoted Smith’s statement as saying, “While the court must defer to the government’s articulation of a secular purpose, the court cannot hold that the County’s articulated purpose is secular.
“Honoring the settlers by retaining a cross on the Seal is the equivalent of honoring the fact that the settlers were Christian.”
Smith based his decision on a legal precedent called the Lemon Test which allows for state-supported religious entities provided they serve a nonreligious or secular purpose.
Smith disagrees with the Lemon Test, according to Christianpost.com, “calling Lehigh County’s seal a ‘passive symbol’ which ‘does not violate the plain text of the Establishment Clause.’
“While the court does not believe the current state of the law applicable to this case comports with the text of the Establishment Clause, the court is not in a position to reject it,” Smith said according to Christianpost.com.
Regardless of Smith’s opinion, the matter is now out of his jurisdiction; the appeal will be heard by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia according to Cafferty.
In other business, the commissioners reviewed proposed amendments for next year’s county budget.
Some Lehigh County organizations with a stake in next year’s budget came forward to make their pitch for the budget line item affecting them.
Commissioners reviewed proposed amendments to the planned budget for next year and moved money from some line items and placed the money back into various county funds.
Commissioners considered 18 separate line items in the budget which will be voted on during a special meeting Oct. 30, the day before the deadline for passing a budget.
A delegation of officers and board members from the Valley Mountain Bikers Club, led by its president, Louis Mazzante, acquainted the commissioners with the work the club has been doing on a mile-long stretch of trail in Trexler Nature Preserve. Lehigh County owns and maintains the 1,108 acre preserve.
The preserve is in North Whitehall and Lowhill townships.
Local industrialist Gen. Harry Trexler bought the land between 1901 and 1911 and after his death bequeathed the land to the county.
While the $100,000 line item for a mountain bike trail was reduced to $1 with the balance transferred to the Green Future Fund, Mazzante said getting the trail funded is the key to getting it built.
He plans on getting commissioners to agree to fund a professional design, a first step to getting funding for a final project.
According to the club’s website, Valley Mountain Bikers “emphasize respect for the trails that we ride through education and involvement.
“We routinely set up volunteer Trail Days in which members repair, build or maintain trails based on International Mountain Bicycling Association trail standards to prevent damage to the environment.”