Atheist group: This NJ town’s motto is too religious
An anti-religious, pro-secularism group is urging New Jersey's Clayton Borough to "get rid of its unmistakably religious seal and motto," saying its declaration of a "Great Place to Live and Play, Work and Pray" is unconstitutional.
"Federal courts have ruled that similar seals violate the Establishment Clause," Freedom From Religion Foundation Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote in a letter last September to Clayton Mayor Tom Bianco, quoted in a statement from the group late last month. "Federal courts have also consistently ruled that religious symbolism, and crosses specifically, on municipal seals are unconstitutional."
The borough's seal includes an image of a cross and a church — symbols that the FRFF says, as part of a municipal seal, amount to an endorsement of Christianity and prayer.
In a response to the FRFF in October of last year, Borough Solicitor Timothy D. Scaffidi wrote the church and cross "along with the other items of historical significance in Clayton, has secular purpose of recognizing the history of the borough." The group has also posted that response on its website.
The motto has the "secular purpose" of recognizing Clayton's history as well, Scaffidi wrote.
"As you know, as such, neither the seal nor the motto violate the Establishment Clause of the Unite(d) States Constitution," Scaffidi's response continued. "Accordingly, the Borough of Clayton is not planning on revising either."
The Establishment Clause is the first pronouncement in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Broadly, it's referred to casually as separation of church and state.
Gene Costill, a former five-time Clayton mayor, told NJ Advance Media the seal dates back to the 1960s, during one of his terms.
"I think it's a quality job," Costill told the news organization. "Everybody can pray to whoever they want. It doesn't tell you who to pray to, it just says it's a good place to pray."
The FRFF, in turn, argues the imagery and motto advance religion over non-religion, and specifically endorse Christianity.
"In addition, FFRF insists that the borough of Clayton make an effort to be inclusive, since 30 percent of Americans and 43 percent of millennials are non-Christian, practicing either a minority religion or no religion at all," it wrote in its statement last month. "If Clayton has a sectarian seal and declares itself to be a great place to pray, this ostracizes such citizens of the borough."
Ziegler, in the statement from her group, said it's also "not a city's place to declare that it's a good place to pray. The borough of Clayton ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion by promoting a religious activity in its official motto."
On March 24, three days after FRFF's most recent statement on the matter, the borough's mayor and council approved a motion to leave the motto and seal as is, NJ Advance Media reports.