"In God We Trust"
Replacing the Cross in Stow
For the people of Stow it’s not a matter of faith, but free speech.

That’s the message of those who supported the Stow City Council’s 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 Polster’s 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 seal’s 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 council’s decision placed before voters during the November 1997 elections. By a margin of 57 to 43 percent, the people of Stow reversed council’s 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 religious faith.

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 wouldn’t accept any of them, he said.

One of those designs included the words “In God We Trust,” he commented, so it’s 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 Stow’s 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 D’Antonio 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, she explained.

Parrish also sees Stow’s referendum as a critical difference in his city’s case versus others that have been ruled against. “Of the five or six cities that have been sued, I believe we’re the only city with a referendum,” he said.

“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.

Citizen Magazine, March, 1999, Vol. 13, No. 3, published by Focus on the Family. Copyright 1999. Focus on the Family. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by Permission.