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ACLU plans to file lawsuit over Stow seal

From staff and wire reports Published: November 6, 1997 12:00 AM

The American Civil Liberties Union will sue the city, probably this month, Cleveland ACLU spokesman Gary Daniels said Wednesday, a day after voters reinstated the disputed seal.

"We feel people can have crosses in their churches, homes and cars as part of their private lives," Daniels said. "But when you are talking about a religious symbol on a city seal, that can be seen as an endorsement of one religion."

Stow Law Director Tom Watkins said Wednesday the city will fight that lawsuit "because that's what people want us to do."

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From July 1996 when Watkins notified Stow City Council and Mayor Donald Coughlin in a memo about the possible controversy of the seal, to February, when council voted to retire the seal, there were heated debates between council, the public and members of the ACLU.

During months of debate, the ACLU contended it would sue the city if it didn't stop using its seal. Council voted Feb. 27 to retire the seal with a 4-3 vote.

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At the Feb. 27 meeting, council President John Parker verbally attacked the ACLU, saying he was offended that the ACLU "could dictate what we can or cannot do," and by the ACLU making threats to the city and council members.

Parker, whose vote was the deciding one to retire the seal, said the issue had driven a wedge between friends and colleagues. He asked that a committee be formed to design a new seal.

After the seal was officially retired, a group of residents calling themselves Concerned Citizens for Constitutional Freedom circulated a petition requesting the issue be placed on ballot, which it later was. Because of the petition, the city was not able to act on the Feb. 27 ordinance to retire the seal.

The vote Tuesday was 4,861 to restore the seal and 3,592 votes to keep it retired.

"I'm happy and joyful with the fact we won," said Donald Miller, a 37-year Stow resident who worked with Citizens for Constitutional Freedom to gather 3,000 signatures to get the referendum. "I would like to see the ACLU defeated. I think the city should go forward based on the vote of the people."

About 10 percent of Stow's 32,000 people are non-Christians, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. The city has 19 churches; the largest one being Holy Family Catholic Church with a membership of about 10,000.

Miller said Wednesday the appearance of a cross and Bible in part of the city seal "does not establish a religion. It's a symbol of our historical culture." He said the issue is freedom of expression.

Watkins estimated that a legal battle could cost Stow about $300,000, because if the ACLU wins the case it could then seek a court order for Stow to pay its legal expenses.

Watkins said he expects the ACLU will seek a temporary order prohibiting the city from using the symbols in the seal.

"I think the public detests the ACLU's involvement," Watkins said Wednesday. "I understand the anger and frustration the people feel."

Supreme Court justices last year voted 6-3 to reject arguments of lawyers for Edmond, Okla., and let stand a federal appeals court ruling that said Edmond's use of a religious symbol was unlawful. In 1992, the Supreme Court refused to let two Illinois cities _ Zion and Rolling Meadows _ continue using religious symbols as part of their city seals.

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