A federal judge has ordered the removal of the Christian cross from the official seal of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, stating it violated the Constitution.
U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith noted in his decision on Thursday that the canary yellow cross at the center of the county's seal runs contrary to court limits on government endorsement of religion.
He stressed that he was unhappy about his ruling, but he was following the rule of constitutional law, including the establishment clause, which prohibits Congress from passing any laws establishing a religion.
"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 stated in his ruling, as reported by Fox News.
"The law, as it currently stands, requires that the court rule in favor of the plaintiffs: the inclusion of the cross lacked a secular purpose both when the defendant adopted the seal and when the defendant refused to remove the cross from the seal, and a reasonable observer would perceive the seal as endorsing Christianity," he continued.
The lawsuit over the county seal was filed in August 2016 by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which promotes the separation of church and state. The group launched a campaign to have the cross removed from the county seal and flag in 2014 after four residents complained about the symbol.
County officials refused to give in to the group's request, arguing that the cross should be viewed in its historical context.
Temple University Beasley School of Law professor Mark Rahdert noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has found it constitutional for a government agency to use a religious symbol among a range of images for a nonreligious purpose, and it has upheld the government use of religious symbols in a historical context.
The law professor, however, stressed that a symbol is not permissible when it is used for an explicitly religious purpose.
Rahdert also noted that while the high court has not dealt with cases involving the depiction of a cross, it has dealt with the public display of a Christmas creche depicting the birth of Jesus and other memorials depicting the Ten Commandments.
Following the ruling, the county officials must now await another court filing from FFRF that will propose a course of action for the county to follow under an order from Smith.
"I'm personally not happy with the decision, but now the county, the board of commissioners will review the judge's decision and decide what the next steps are," said commissioners Chairman Marty Nothstein.
The seal, which was first adopted by Lehigh County in 1944 with the Latin cross at the center, is included on county flags, buildings, letterhead and legal documents, as well as its website.