The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation has opened an investigation of the new Chester Township Seal, which bears the image of a local Baptist church. The seal, which was adopted by police in the Geagua County township east of Cleveland, went into use on January 26, 2001. It depicts several well known landmarks in the township, including the church, an historic gazebo and a local schoolhouse.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits municipalities from acting to support or endorse religion in general or particular religious institutions. Courts have frequently held that town seals which bear religious imagery violate the Establishment Clause by creating the impression that the town officially favors religion, something the Constitutional does not allow.
While the depiction of the church is not, in itself, a violation of the Establishment Clause, remarks by Police Chief Joseph Orosz, quoted in local press accounts, suggest that the church appears on the seal as a symbol of the spiritual faith of the community. “However laudable that sentiment may be, and however proud Chester Township is of its churches, the First Amendment does not allow the government to sponsor religion by adopting its symbols as its own,” said Christine Link, Executive Director of the Ohio ACLU.
ACLU lawyers have written to the Geagua County Prosecutors office, requesting documentation surrounding the design and adoption of the seal, and inquiring as to the purpose of depicting the church at issue. “What matters is intent,” said Raymond Vasvari, Legal Director for the Ohio ACLU. “The federal courts have been fairly consistent on this issue: if the design is intended as a favorable nod to a given religion, a town seal violates the First Amendment.”
In 1999, the Ohio ACLU prevailed in a lengthy legal battle with the City of Stow, in Summit County, where the seal prominently depicted a Latin cross atop what appeared to be an open Bible. The federal district court in Akron held that the Stow seal violated the Establishment Clause by promoting the Christian faith.