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Municipalities' use of religion in their seals

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Results of a court case:

Republic MO: Marilyn Schexsnayder won a public competition to design a new city seal in 1990. She included an ichthus - a fish symbol - believing that it was a generally accepted icon that represented all religions. It is not. It was originally a Pagan fertility symbol. Later, it widely used among early Christians in the Roman Empire. They noted that ichthus (Greek for "fish") is a Greek acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God." It is still commonly utilized by Christians. Jean Webb, a Wiccan, wrote an opinion piece in the local newspaper in which she opposed the symbol; she felt that the city was implying that her Neopagan religion was not welcome. She received hate mail and harassing phone calls. Her children were ostracized. The Republic Board of Aldermen refused to remove the symbol voluntarily. With the help of the ACLU, Webb sued the city in 1998-JUL, even though she had previously moved out of the area to avoid the harassment. The city's lawyers argued that the religious nature of the ichthus is in dispute. On 1999-JUL-9, U.S. District Judge Russell Clark decided in favor of Webb. In his ruling, he wrote: "Webb brings overwhelming evidence before the Court to show that only one conclusion is possible: when viewing the fish on Republic’s flag, a reasonable observer would conclude that it is a Christian religious symbol...Almost all other courts examining the inclusion of a religious symbol within a city seal have found them in contravention of the principles of separation of church and state...While the citizens of Republic may have intended that its seal send only a message of moral values or promote ‘a universal symbol of religion,’ an applaudable motive cannot save the city seal from a violation of the Establishment Clause...While the purpose of placing the fish symbol on the city seal may not have been to endorse Christianity, the effect of the seal is to do so...The portrayal of the fish impermissibly excludes other religious beliefs or non-beliefs and -– intended or not -– depicts Christianity as the religion recognized and endorsed by the residents of Republic. The Republic city seal pervasively invades the daily lives of non-Christians and sends a message that they are outsiders. The Constitution forbids such a result. The Supreme Court has unambiguously concluded that...the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all."

Jean Webb did not ask for monetary damages and was granted none. A citizens' committee raised thousands of dollars to fund an appeal. On 1999-JUL-19, the city voted to remove the Christian fish symbol from its seal. 1 The mayor had to break a 4-4 tie. Although an appeal was supported by the vast majority of the approximately 200 people who attended the council meeting, the city leaders were concerned about having to pay the ACLU legal costs if they lost the appeal. 

Steve Fitschen is president of the National Legal Foundation of Virginia Beach. They supported the city in its court case. He pointed out that an appeal might be winnable since the original plaintiff was no longer living in the city, and thus did not have legal standing. (She had been driven from the city by continual harassment). Ray Bennett, a deacon at First Baptist Church of Republic saw at least one positive outcome from the court case: countless Americans now know what the fish symbol stands for.

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Conflict resolved outside the court system: 

Los Angeles County, CA: The city seal was redesigned by the former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn circa 1957 to include a small cross. It is seen grouped with two stars and a depiction of the Hollywood Bowl -- a symbol of culture -- at the 3 o'clock position on the seal.
The two stars represent the movie and television industries. Some people in the county read about the Redlands case described elsewhere, and complained to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about the Los Angeles County seal. The ACLU sent a letter to county officials noting that the seal "prominently depicts a Latin cross, a sectarian religious symbol that represents the beliefs of one segment of the county's diverse population" [and is an] impermissible endorsement of Christianity." Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich responded with a letter referring to the Roman Catholic missionaries who established missions in what is now Los Angeles County. He wrote: "The cross on our county seal reflects these historical facts. It does not mean that we are all Roman Catholics or that everyone who resides in our county is a Christian - it only reflects our historical roots." Supervisor Don Knabe introduced a motion during the week of 2004-MAY-23 to "begin preparations to protect and defend the county seal if such frivolous litigation is brought against the county." The motion was voted upon on JUN-01, and did not pass. Instead, the Board of Supervisors decided by a 3 to 2 vote to remove the cross symbol. Ironically, by far the largest image is at the center of the seal. It represents Pomona, the Roman Pagan Goddess of fruits and trees. She represents the county's agriculture industry. No one seems to have complained about the presence of a Pagan symbol. Of course, it is probably not obvious to the casual observer that Pomona is anyone other than an ordinary woman carrying agricultural products. 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Baptist Press, "Town removes Christian symbol from seal," 1999-JUL-22. On line at: http://www.mcjonline.com/
  2. John Antczak, "ACLU demands removal of cross from Los Angeles County seal," Associated Press, 2004-MAY-25, at: http://www.sacbee.com

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Copyright © 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 1998-AUG-5
Latest update: 2005-DEC-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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