City of Steubenville, Franciscan University Targeted by Freedom From Religion Foundation
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) demanded in May 2012 that the City of Steubenville turn over all records regarding a new city logo, which included a silhouette of Franciscan Universitys Christ the King Chapel as well as numerous other Steubenville landmarks. The militant atheist group indicated its intention of contesting the logo, following a complaint allegedly submitted to FFRF by a Stuebenville resident.
Public records obtained by Media Trackers show that city attorney Stephen Gary Repella attempted to negotiate with FFRF staff attorney Patrick Elliott through July. In a May 23 email, Repella wrote, “Do you have a problem with the City replacing the chapel and cross with another image from the University such as the library, school mascot ‘The Baron’ after Baron Von Steuben, fieldhouse, classroom?”
“These latter images would not reflect religion,” Repella added.
On July 16, Elliott replied, “FFRF would not have a problem with depictions of education or of the University in the logo that are not religious, such as figures of the field house, library, etc.”
In a response sent the same day, Repella asked whether FFRF would accept a logo that simply excluded the crucifix from the top of the chapel, writing, “”If we remove the cross would that be enough? I believe once [sic] the image with the cross removed could not be construed by anyone as being religious.”
“Certainly it is a step in the right direction but it would not be enough,” Elliott wrote the following morning. “The chapel depiction was included to signify ‘faith and education.’ Given the unique shape of Christ the King Chapel, even with removing the cross, the Steuebenville logo would still include a depiction of a Catholic place of worship.”
In other words, the atheist activists would sue Steubenville – a city known for its Catholic university – for depicting a Catholic chapel in the city logo even if the crucifix on the chapel roof was excluded.
On July 25, city manager Cathy Davison sent an email advising Steubenville officials, “Effective immediately discontinue utilizing the city logo until a new designed [sic] is agreed upon.” Davison also reached out to local artist Mark Nelson, who had volunteered his time to design the logo.
Repella sent an email to Elliott the same day, informing him that the City had bowed to FFRF’s demands and would seek the atheist organization’s approval before using a revised version of the city logo.
“City Council has agreed to change the logo as per your request,” Repella wrote. “We will make the change and insert another building from the University. Once we receive the new logo we will forward it to you for your review.”
However, on July 26 Davison sent a message to Michael Hernon, the vice president of advancement at Franciscan University. Hernon was in the news in May 2012 when Franciscan announced it would stop offering student health insurance due to Obamacare’s contraception mandate.
“I have polled half of council thus far, and they are interested in pursuing support of the City,” the city manager wrote. “Obviously, as we discussed yesterday, the city cannot afford to pay for any time of legal battle, but we would be willing to accept assistance to do so. As you know, we appreciate all of what Franciscan does for our community and we do support the University.”
In an interview, Repella informed Media Trackers that he believed the logo represents a violation of separation of church and state, a concept which he argued was codified in the U.S. Constitution.
This statement from Repella resembled a July 26 quote in the Stebuenville Herald-Star that he had “researched current case law and found a lot of case law that does not allow religious symbols in government symbols.” Emails obtained by Media Trackers suggest much of the relevant case law was sent to Repella by FFRF.
When asked whether his public agreement with FFRF’s argument weakened his employer’s legal position, Repella replied that Media Trackers was “unaware of the facts” surrounding the case.
In late July, FFRF co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor told 610 WTVN morning-show host Joel Riley that the inclusion of a building with a small cross on it was analogous to “promoting the Muslim religion on their seal.”
Gaylor continued, claiming that the city logo “made the people who are not Christians feel like outsiders, and it makes the Christians – or in this case, Catholics – look like they are preferred insiders, preferred citizens.”
The City of Steubenville is currently preparing to fight the atheist group’s lawsuit, in spite of Repella’s public guidance that the city should give in and devise a new logo scrubbed of any reference to the renowned Catholic university.