STEUBENVILLE - A lawyer who has offered legal help to Steubenville city officials facing a threatened lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation said Steubenville may be "the perfect storm" in the growing debate over an unofficial logo that includes a cross and a silhouette of the Christ the King Chapel on the Franciscan University of Steubenville campus.
"The Madison, Wis., foundation has decided to challenge the city over their unofficial logo. And Steubenville has a number of very motivated Christians and Catholics who are used to being very politically motivated. They are also very good at getting media attention on a national basis," said Terry McKeegan of Steubenville.
McKeegan, one of 2,200 attorneys affiliated with the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the city's unofficial logo may be "the perfect case to take to the Supreme Court."
City Manager Cathy Davison said Thursday the city administration has received several offers of pro-bono legal representation and will continue to discuss the issue with City Council.
"The city's mayor, City Council and administration are reviewing all options that pertain to the city logo and the effect it may have on our residents, businesses and visitors," noted Davison.
An FFRF attorney sent a letter to Law Director S. Gary Repella on Wednesday warning against accepting legal help to oppose the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The FFRF issued a press release Thursday afternoon quoting Foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliot as telling Repella, "Do not be duped by offers from religious right legal groups. They may volunteer their time pro bono but they never pick up the plaintiffs' tab."
The press release said Elliott warned the city "about accepting such offers, which will put city taxpayers at risk."
The depiction of the cross and chapel on the city logo is a "near copy of the Franciscan University logo, which further blurs the line between church and state," Elliott said in his letter.
"Crosses do not belong on the logos of American cities. We are not a 'Christian nation' or a theocracy, but were first among nations to adopt a secular constitution wisely separating religion from government," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
According to McKeegan, "this is how they bully and intimidate local governments to not fight them on these issues."
"At this point no lawsuit has been filed against the city. Our Alliance is looking at the idea of setting up a national escrow fund to help the city fight this issue. We have started that process but are not ready to formally announce it yet until the city leaders decide what they plan to do," said McKeegan.
"All of the facts lead us to believe we can win this case and set a precedent going forward. And I don't believe the FFRF will file a lawsuit. The foundation has limited legal resources. They will make a lot of threats but I don't think they will file a lawsuit against the city. There is a lot of talking going on at this point. But the city doesn't have to make a decision until a lawsuit is actually filed. There is still a lot of time to make a decision," remarked McKeegan.
A standing-room-only crowd attended Tuesday night's City Council meeting with several speakers urging council to officially adopt the city logo.
The ongoing public debate prompted Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, with headquarters in New York, to issue his public support of the current logo design.
"As is commonplace, city logos reflect the people and institutions associated with the municipality, and in the case of Steubenville, this means including symbols that represent the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Because of its national reputation as a first-class Catholic university, any depiction of the school that does not reflect its Catholic identity would be dishonest. Indeed, it would be like nixing the 'Fighting Irish' leprechaun-figure from a logo representing the University of Notre Dame," Donahue said on the League's website.
"It is entirely constitutional to have religious symbols outside City Hall at Christmastime, provided they are accompanied by secular symbols. It should also be constitutional to have religious symbols accompany secular ones on a city logo, especially when the former clearly represent an institution that is integrally associated with the municipality," continued Donahue.
He also urged his league members to e-mail Mayor Domenick Mucci "not to buckle to the forces of censorship."