For the people of Stow its not a matter of faith, but free speech.
Thats the message of those who supported the Stow City
Councils decision to consider appealing a December ruling against the city seal.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster ruled the municipal emblem unconstitutional because, in
his opinion, it promotes Christianity above other religions, a violation of the
Establishment Clause found in the First Amendment.
The clause forbids government from requiring citizens to adhere to and
believe in one religious faith above all others. The Stow seal bears an image of a
Christian or Latin cross in the top left quadrant.
The council voted 5-2 in January to investigate the possibility of
appealing Polsters decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit,
located in Cincinnati. However, in an apparent compromise measure, the council
preliminarily agreed in February to alter the seals design by substituting the words
In God We Trust for the cross. An open book, supposedly representing the
Bible, would remain in the background behind the quote.
In his December ruling, Polster did not comment on the book symbol.
Instead, he noted that nonsectarian religious symbols, such as hands clasped in
prayer or a reference to God would likely not violate the Establishment clause of
the First Amendment because they are not connected to one particular faith tradition.
The uproar over the city seal began in 1996, when several residents of
Stow, population 27,702, contacted city law director Thomas Watkins protesting the
inclusion of a specifically Christian image on a government emblem.
Watkins issued a memo to Stow City Council saying he thought the cross
on the city seal may be unconstitutional. Under that advisement, and with mounting
pressure from the ACLU, the council voted in February, 1997 to retire the seal. But that
would not be the end.
A group of local residents, calling themselves Concerned Citizens for
Constitutional Freedom (CCCF), circulated a petition to have councils decision
placed before voters during the November 1997 elections. By a margin of 57 to 43 percent,
the people of Stow reversed councils action and brought back the seal.
Six weeks later, on Dec. 16, 1997, the ACLU filed suit against the
city, claiming a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, which
prohibits government from saying all people must adhere to and believe in only one
The seal, an official government emblem used on stationery, city
banners and other media representing the municipality, came into existence in 1966. In
addition to the cross and book, there are three other images illustrating important
features of life in Stow. The other pictures include a Cape Cod style home, a factory
building and a quill and scroll.
According to Akron attorney Michael Malyuk, a spokesman for CCCF, the
suggestion that the book and cross establishes Christianity as the government-sanctioned
religion is like saying the quadrant featuring a single-family dwelling establishes the
Cape Cod style as the only accepted home design in Stow.
CCCF member Bob Parrish added that attempts to come up with a less
offensive religious symbol met with ACLU disapproval. The city of Stow offered 14
alternative designs to the ACLU and they wouldnt accept any of them, he said.
One of those designs included the words In God We Trust, he
commented, so its possible the ACLU may file suit against the new seal as well.
However, the national motto, which is found on all U.S. currency, has been upheld as
constitutional by three different circuit courts. That phrase was apparently inspired by
Psalm 56:11, In God I have put my trust.
Much was made in the Northeast Ohio press of the potential cost of an
appeal. Opponents estimate the cost at over $100,000. Watkins was reported as saying the
city might be responsible for $60,000 in attorney fees accrued by the ACLU if the appeal
fails in the 6th Circuit. The city has no legal cost itself, being represented free of
charge by the American Center for Law and Justice, with pro bono offers also coming from
several northeast Ohio law firms.
According to Parrish, the potential cost convinced most council members
to seek an alternative design that still acknowledges the role of God in the life of
Stows citizens, yet avoids the appeals process.
A key to the city even considering an appeal was the referendum.
According to published reports, several council members voted in favor of the appeal
simply because the people of Stow voted to keep the seal. The council President Janet
DAntonio was quoted in the Ravenna Record-Courier as saying she struggled over
whether to send the case to the 6th Circuit. The deciding factor in was the referendum,
Parrish also sees Stows referendum as a critical difference in
his citys case versus others that have been ruled against. Of the five or six
cities that have been sued, I believe were the only city with a referendum, he
The city of Stow has set a precedent for cities using similar
seals by the referendum, the vote of the people, he added. Citizen action back
up by group prayer has made the difference.