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City forced to change seal after foundation gets cross

By JOHN GREEN

Special to The Hays Daily News

BUHLER -- The city of Buhler will redesign its city seal and replace a large sign in the city's park after a complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation that both contain a religious cross.

City officials sought legal opinions from several different sources before making the decision to alter the seal, said Mayor Daniel Friesen.

The city sent a letter to its residents via email Friday to inform them of the decision.

The cross has been a part of the city's seal for 24 years, since a redesign of the seal for the city's centennial in 1988.

It was another recent redesign of the seal on a sign in the city's Albert Becker Park, however, making the cross a more prominent part of the image, that led to the complaint. The sign was redesigned about four months ago, along with other improvements going on in the city park.

In a Sept. 14 letter to the city, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation stated an area resident "with necessary business in Buhler" contacted it about the sign. The organization argued the sign violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, indicating by its inclusion of the cross, the government endorses Christianity.

"The endorsement of religion in the Buhler seal is particularly egregious because the cross is prominently featured and used to symbolize the 'Traditional Values' portion of the town motto," the letter from attorney Patrick Elliott stated. "Courts addressing less prominent depictions have found that the inclusion of a Latin cross among other symbols on government seals and logos violates the Establishment Clause."

Friesen sought legal opinions from the city's attorney as well as from the American Center for Law and Justice and the Christian Law Association. Friesen declined to discuss the specific recommendations or findings of the local attorney, citing attorney/client privilege, but said "it was consistent with the decision that we made."

In letters to Friesen, attorneys at both outside organizations also agreed the seal likely would not pass a legal challenge.

"There must be a neutral effect and also a lack of entanglement with a particular religion by the city" for such a symbol to be OK in the city emblem, Charlotte Cover, an attorney with Gibbs & Associates, responding for the Christian Law Association, stated.

"For the same reason that city officials and citizens of Buhler would likely be offended by display of a Wiccan goddess or Buddha in its emblem, non-Christians may be, and apparently are, offended by the cross of Christianity currently highlighted in the City's emblem," Cover wrote.

Contributing to its decision not to challenge removal of the cross, Friesen noted, was that fact if the city lost its case, it could be obligated by the court to pay all the legal fees in the suit, "costs that could easily take substantial amounts of the city's very limited budget resources."

The Buhler City Council met in executive session about the issue Oct. 30, and then in open session voted to agree to change the seal.

No public or media was present at the meeting, Friesen said.

While they've agreed to redesign the sign and seal, they haven't decided yet exactly how they'll do it.

"The sign is still up," Friesen said. "I think in the next few months we're going to make changes that comply with the legal opinions we received. We haven't decided on a redesign yet."

"I think the people of Buhler are going to be just as frustrated at the Council and myself," Friesen said. "But one of the reasons we're trying to get this information out is so people can understand the decision we're making here. We're not making them lightly. They're not easy decisions or ones that we really want to make, but we feel like they're the correct decision, based on the Constitution."

"The city of Buhler was founded by immigrants that came here to escape religious persecution," he said. "The same constitution that brought them here also protects the view of people who may not agree with the values of this community. We have to be acceptant of that."