When Ellettsville, Ind., created its first town seal in 1985, it included symbols of the community: knowledge, industry and unity. But now, 28 years later, the seal’s fourth symbol, God, is under attack.
Last November, the Ellettsville town council received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating the use of a Latin cross in the town seal violated the Constitution.
The FFRF is a nationwide nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin that works to protect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, according to the letter.
Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the FFRF, said a resident of Ellettsville did contact the foundation about the seal, saying they felt they lived in a town not representative of their personal views.
Displayed above the entrance to the town hall, on fire trucks and official town documents, the town seal, according to the letter, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...” That clause is followed by the Free Exercise Clause, which protects citizens’ right to freely practice the religions they choose.
Although the FFRF is claiming the Constitution is on their side, long-time Ellettsville resident Norm Wampler, 67, said God is a part of our country’s history. The phrase “separation of church and state,” is not in the Constitution, Wampler said, and it’s easily taken out of context for this defense.
“In my mind, there is no constitutional ground for a lawsuit,” he said.
There have been many similar cases throughout the country, Wampler said, and he has followed most of them. To him, the main goal of groups like the FFRF, he said, is to erase God from the country.
Wampler referred to presidents who say “God bless America,” when addressing the nation, and that the Ten Commandments are depicted behind the Supreme Court justices of the United States.
“Because of the first amendment, groups like this (FFRF) can exist, and that’s fine,” Wampler said. “What frustrates me so much is if you have done any in-depth study of our history, faith is a strong part of our founding.”
Wampler was one of about 30 people, he said, who attended a town council meeting Monday.
Discussing the seal was not on the agenda, but community members vocalized concerns during the open comment portion at the end. The feeling in the room was still calm when the seal was brought up, Wampler said, and no one there expressed desire to change the seal.
The council said nothing would change without notice, and they are exploring their options.
Resident Valerie Piercy said our country was founded on Christian principles, and she feels some people want that history changed.
“Slavery is a part of history, and I’m ashamed of that,” Piercy said, “but you can’t change it.”
Staking a claim of historical importance, Elliott said, does not relieve the town of its constitutional obligations. The town government must not endorse religion, according to the letter from the FFRF. The depiction of a cross is an undeniable representation of Christianity.
“The cross on the seal places the town’s imprimatur behind Christianity,” according to the letter. “This excludes non-Christians and violates the Constitution.”
Elliot said he understands many people in Ellettsville may be against changing the seal, but when it comes to constitutional issues it’s not a majority rule. The way the First Amendment is set up, he said, just because many people want it does not make it right.
The FFRF’s letter cited several similar cases dealing with town seals, including ones with Latin crosses, where the federal court ruled in all that they violated the Establishment Clause.
“I don’t think they have a defense,” Elliot said. “Reading through the case law, other towns have tried to defend these (town seals), and they haven’t upheld. There’s really no way to defend it.”
Piercy wishes this battle wasn’t being fought in Ellettsville, but she said it’s a battle being fought all over the country.
“If the battle keeps going on I hope they don’t back down,” she said. “I don’t want them to change it without a fight, but I doubt there will be a happy medium.”
Follow reporter Jake Wright on Twitter @fljwright.