County appeals cross use objection
Lehigh Commissioners voted OCt. 11 to appeal U.S. District Judge Edward Smith’s ruling in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in their suit against Lehigh County’s continued use of a Christian cross in the county seal.
The 6–3 vote came after an executive session when commissioners discussed the case. In public session three commissioners voted against appealing the decision: David Jones, Geoff Brace and Dan Hartzell.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in August 2016 on behalf of several local residents who objected to the Latin-style cross which is featured in the center of the county seal and flag.
In an interview, Hartzell, who identified himself as a Christian, said, “The cross in the seal never bothered me.” However, he said he did not think the case is winnable, but would instead be a waste of “several hundred thousand dollars” of tax payer’s money.
In an interview Patrick Elliot, senior counsel with the Wisconsin-based FFRF, estimated that similar cases have cost defendants between $140,000 to $200,000. He said that at some point the winning side will be reimbursed their fees by the losing side.
Lehigh County Assistant County Solicitor Thomas M. Caffery, who is currently representing the county in the case, declined to estimate what the cost might be. He said he is on salary with the county, so he will not bill the county.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation said, “We’ve won; we are confident we will win the appeal.”
However she was not happy to see that 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, said Gaylor in an interview.
The website ChristianPost.com quoted Judge 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.”
Judge Smith based his decision on a legal precedent called the Lemon Test which allows for state-supported religious entities provided they serve a non-religious 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,” said Judge Smith according to Christianpost.com.
Regardless of Judge Smith’s opinion, the matter is now out of his jurisdiction; the appeal will be heard by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia according to Assistant County Solicitor Thomas Cafferty.
In other business, the Lehigh County Commissioners reviewed proposed amendments for next year’s county budget.
Some Lehigh County organizations with a stake in next year’s budget came forward recently to make their pitch for the budget line item that affected them. Lehigh County Commissioners on reviewed proposed amendments to Lehigh County’s planned budget for next year and moved money from some line items and placed the money back into various county funds.
The Commissioners considered eighteen separate line items in the budget which will be voted on at special meeting Oct.r 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 Township and Lowhill Township.
Local industrialist General Harry Trexlar bought the land between 1901 and 1911 and after his death bequeathed the land to Lehigh County.
While the $100,000 line item for a mountain bike trail was reduced to $1.00 with the balance transferred to the Green Future Fund, Mazzante said he believes that getting the trail funded is the key to getting it built. He plans to try to get the Commissioners to agree to fund a professional design, a first step to getting funding for a final project.
“Having the trail funded is the key to getting it done,” said Mazznate in an interview.
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.”