County and City Seals with Religious Content
One issue that frequently generates controversy in the United States is whether the use of religious symbols or language on government property constitutes an establishment of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. One example of the use of religious symbols or language on government property is the use of religious language or imagery on the official seals of cities and counties. On a number of occasions, plaintiffs have challenged the constitutionality of such usages. The U.S. Supreme Court has never considered such a case, but a few lower courts have done so. These courts have tended to focus on whether the use of the religious imagery or language has a primary effect of advancing religion or would be reasonably viewed as constituting an endorsement of religion. If so, then the seal violates the Establishment Clause.
Most courts that have occasion to consider such a case have held that religious content on a city or county seal violates the Establishment Clause. In 1985, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit sitting en banc considered the constitutionality of a Bernalillo County, New Mexico, seal that contained the Spanish motto ‘‘Con Esta Vencemos,’’ which means ‘‘With This We Conquer,’’ arched over a gold Latin cross. The district court had found that the seal’s religious imagery had only historical, not religious, significance, because it denoted the role of the Catholic Church in the settlement of the American Southwest. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, holding that the seal had ‘‘the primary effect of advancing religion’’ and so violated the Establishment Clause. By way of example, the court noted that those persons who encounter a police officer with the county seal emblazoned on his car could reasonably assume that the ‘‘officers were Christian police, and that the organization they represented identified itself with a Christian God’’ Friedman v. Board of County Commissioners (1985). Thereafter, the county removed the religious language and replaced the Latin cross with an ancient Native American sun symbol.
In 1989, the Tenth Circuit again considered the constitutionality of a government seal—one for the city of St. George, Utah—that included a depiction of the city’s Mormon temple. The district court found on a summary judgment motion that the illustration of the temple did not have the primary effect of endorsing the Mormon Church, but the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that there was an issue of fact as to whether the depiction constituted a governmental endorsement of religion and remanded for a trial: Foremaster v. City of St. George (1989).
In 1991, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that two Illinois city seals—the first of which contained a Latin cross along with various secular symbols and the second of which also contained a Latin cross along with the words ‘‘God Reigns’’—violated the Establishment Clause, because they constituted an endorsement of the Christian religion: Harris v. City of Zion (1991); Kuhn v. City of Rolling Meadows (1991).
In 1995, the Tenth Circuit again considered the constitutionality of a city seal—for Edmond, Oklahoma— that contained four quadrants, one of which depicted a Latin cross. The court rejected the city’s argument that the seal reflected ‘‘the unique history and heritage of Edmond’’ and concluded that the use of the cross on the seal violated the Establishment Clause: Robinson v. City of Edmond (1995).
In 1998, a federal district court found that a city seal for Stow, Ohio, containing, along with other secular symbols, a Latin cross superimposed on an open book, had the primary effect of advancing Christianity and thus violated the Establishment Clause’’ ACLU v. City of Stow (1998). The following year, in 1999, a federal district court found that a city seal in Republic, Missouri, that contained a symbolic representation of a fish—a Christian symbol—along with other secular images violated the Establishment Clause: Webb v. City of Republic (1999).
One court, however, has sustained the constitutionality of a city seal containing religious content. In 1991, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the seal of the city of Austin, Texas, that incorporated the family coat of arms of Stephen F. Austin for whom the city was named did not violate the Establishment Clause even though the coat of arms included a Latin cross: Murray v. City of Austin (1991).
On at least one occasion, the use of a county name itself has been challenged as violating the Establishment Clause. In 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered a constitutional challenge to use of the word ‘‘Sacramento’’ on the Sacramento county seal because the English word, ‘‘sacrament,’’ is a term associated with Christianity. The district court dismissed the lawsuit on standing grounds and the Ninth Circuit affirmed: O’Leary v. County of Sacramento (1994).
DAVISON M. DOUGLAS
References and Further Reading
- Curtis, Ralph, Religious Symbols on Municipal Seals and Logos, Journal of Contemporary Law 19 (1993): 287–300.
- Hill, David S., City of Edmond v. Robinson: The Coercion- Standing Test—A New Approach to Religious Symbols Under the Establishment Clause? Utah Law Review 2000 (2000): 643–669.
- McCabe, Kevin J., Note: Toward a Consensus on Religious Images in Civic Seals Under the Establishment Clause: American Civil Liberties Union v. City of Stow, Villanova Law Review 46 (2001): 585–611.
Cases and Statutes Cited
- ACLU v. City of Stow, 29 F. Supp. 2d 845 (N.D. Ohio 1998)
- Foremaster v. City of St. George, 882 F.2d 1485 (10th Cir. 1989)
- Friedman v. Board of County Commissioners, 781 F.2d 777 (10th Cir. 1985)
- Harris v. City of Zion, 927 F.2d 1401 (7th Cir. 1991)
- Kuhn v. City of Rolling Meadows, 927 F.2d 1401 (7th Cir. 1991)
- Murray v. City of Austin, 947 F. 2d 147 (5th Cir. 1991)
- O’Leary v. County of Sacramento, 19 F.3d 1440 (9th Cir. 1994)
- (unpublished) Robinson v. City of Edmond, 68 F.3d 1226 (10th Cir. 1995)
- Webb v. City of Republic, 55 F. Supp. 2d 994 (W.D. Mo.1999)
See also Establishment Clause (I): History, Background, Framing