110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Americans United: We're the good guys
Group's attorney explains challenge to DeLand city seal
By Jen Horton
posted Sep 12, 2013 - 10:56:25am
The best way to protect religion is to keep government out of it, said Ian Smith, staff attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Americans United, a nonprofit agency, in August challenged DeLand's use of a cross, anchor and heart in its city seal to depict "faith, hope and charity," which are mentioned in I Corinthians in the Christian Bible.
Smith said his group protects freedom of religion.
"We view the separation of church and state as essential to protect religion in the U.S.," he said. "This is the way you protect religious freedom in our country."
Any preference for a particular religion by a government stifles religious diversity in one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, Smith said.
He said the three symbols in DeLand's city seal represent theological ideals a demonstrate a religious preference for Christianity.
However, Smith said, had the cross not been in the seal, the person who made the complaint to Americans United might not have been concerned about the heart and anchor.
Smith said he didn't understand why DeLand residents are upset about the challenge to the seal.
In any other circumstance, when government tries to interfere with citizens' rights, people tend to get upset; yet, when it comes to government and religion, it's a different response, he said.
"The government shouldn't be telling people what religion to be," Smith said.
If a symbol of one faith is predominant in a community — plastered on buildings, letterhead and police cars — someone of a different faith might feel like an outsider, as if he or she might not be treated the same as those of the predominant faith, according to Smith.
"That's the danger," he said.
As to whether DeLand's seal could be allowable because it is part of the city's history and has existed since 1882, Smith said "this is the way it has always been" is not a valid argument in federal court.
Smith said his organization is reviewing the response to its challenge by DeLand City Attorney Darren Elkind.
Smith noted that Elkind wrote, in his closing paragraph, that many offers of assistance have been made, should the challenge to the seal go to court.
Smith said, in cases like this, agencies and individuals often will pitch in to help pay for the defense, but if the city or organization loses, the city must often also pay the plaintiffs' legal fees, in addition to paying for its own defense.
Smith said, in his experiences, the offers of help don't cover the plaintiffs' costs, and cities can end up on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"That is something worth noting," Smith said.
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