Saladin v. City of Milledgeville

Decision Date17 March 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-8265,86-8265
Citation812 F.2d 687
PartiesKenneth SALADIN; C. Diane Saladin; Thelma Guaetta, Frampton K.C. Smith, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF MILLEDGEVILLE, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Ralph Goldberg, Atlanta, Ga., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Charles A. Mathis, Jr., Milledgeville, Ga., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

Before FAY and JOHNSON, Circuit Judges, and HENDERSON, Senior Circuit Judge.

JOHNSON, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant-appellee City of Milledgeville, 630 F.Supp. 344 (MD Ga.1986). The district court dismissed the plaintiffs-appellants' constitutional challenge to the City's official seal as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment on grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the challenge. We reverse the district court's ruling on standing and remand the case for trial on the merits of the constitutional claim.


The City of Milledgeville has used a city seal to authenticate official documents since at least 1912. In more recent years the seal has been printed on city stationery, painted on the doors of some city vehicles, and placed on the shoulder patches of some city uniforms. In addition, the seal was painted on the city water tank in 1984, after the commencement of the instant lawsuit. 1

The seal is circular, surrounded by a braided border. The words "City of Milledgeville" are printed in block letters along the top two-thirds of the seal. The date "1803" appears in the same size letters along the bottom. In the center of the seal appears a winged figure, bearing a banner on a pole. The words "Liberty" and "Christianity" are inscribed on the banner.

In May 1983 several residents in and around Milledgeville filed suit in United States District Court against the City of Milledgeville, contending that the use of the word "Christianity" on the city seal violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Appellants Kenneth and Clara Saladin reside in Baldwin County, Georgia, outside the Milledgeville city limits. Both shop in Milledgeville and pay a 1% sales tax to the City on all of their purchases. 2 Kenneth Saladin has been active in various civic organizations in Milledgeville, most notably the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Association of the Milledgeville Area. Appellant Thelma Guaetta resides in the City of Milledgeville and pays city property taxes in addition to city sales taxes. Thelma Guaetta, like Kenneth Saladin, has participated actively in civic organizations in Milledgeville. Appellant Frampton K.C. Smith also lives in Milledgeville and pays city sales taxes, but does not pay city property taxes.

The appellants' complaint alleged that the city seal denigrated their personal and philosophical beliefs and made them feel like second class citizens. The complaint also alleged that the City's display of the seal constituted impermissible use of municipal tax revenues to promote a particular religion. The appellants sought to enjoin the City from any further use of the seal.

The City moved to dismiss the complaint on grounds that the lawsuit did not present a justiciable case or controversy because the plaintiffs lacked the requisite standing. On February 20, 1986, the district court entered a preliminary order denying the motion to dismiss. In the preliminary order, the court held that the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the display on the seal on the City's water towers and vehicles, but that they would not have standing if the City limited its use of the seal to embossing official documents and printing it on city stationery. The court then directed the City to inform it within two weeks whether the City wished to confine the seal's use to government stationery and embossing documents, or whether it wished to display the seal elsewhere as well and risk having it declared unconstitutional.

The City took up the district court's invitation. On February 28, 1986, it advised the court that the City would limit the use of the seal to city stationery and embossing official documents. It further represented to the court that the seal would not be used in any other fashion, and that the City would remove the seal from all city vehicles, uniforms, and the water tank within fourteen days. The City also renewed its motion to dismiss for lack of standing.

On March 21, 1986, the district court granted the City's motion, treating it as a motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the case. The court held that 1) it could not pass on the constitutionality of the display of the seal on the water tower, uniforms and vehicles because those issues were moot, and 2) the plaintiffs were unable to show standing to challenge the only remaining uses of the seal. The appellants filed a timely notice of appeal.


The primary issue in this appeal is whether the district court correctly concluded that the appellants lacked standing to challenge the display of the seal on city stationery and to emboss official documents. 3 The court found that, when the seal was imprinted on the city stationery or used to emboss documents, the word "Christianity" was completely illegible. Given that the offensive portion of the seal was unreadable, the court reasoned that the appellants could not establish that its display caused them any injury.

Article III of the Constitution limits the judicial power of the United States to the resolution of "cases" or "controversies". 4 Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750, 104 S.Ct. 3315, 3324, 82 L.Ed.2d 556 (1984); Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 454 U.S. 464, 471, 102 S.Ct. 752, 757, 70 L.Ed.2d 700 (1982); Lynch v. Baxley, 744 F.2d 1452, 1455 (11th Cir.1984). As part and parcel of the case or controversy requirement, a litigant must have "standing" before he may bring a lawsuit in federal court. Valley Forge Christian College, supra, 454 U.S. at 471, 102 S.Ct. at 757; Lynch v. Baxley, supra, 744 F.2d at 1455; American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia v. Rabun County Chamber of Commerce, 698 F.2d 1098, 1104 (11th Cir.1983). The essence of a standing question is whether the plaintiff has alleged "such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to assure that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court so largely depends for the illumination of difficult constitutional questions[.]" Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 204, 82 S.Ct. 691, 703, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962).

The Supreme Court has developed an analysis for standing issues which is comprised of both "constitutional" and "prudential" requirements. To satisfy the "irreducible" constitutional minimum required for standing, a litigant must show 1) that he personally has suffered an actual or prospective injury as a result of the putatively illegal conduct; 2) that the injury can be fairly traced to the challenged conduct; and 3) that the injury is likely to be redressed through court action. Valley Forge Christian College, supra, 454 U.S. at 472, 102 S.Ct. at 758; Duke Power Company v. Carolina Environmental Study Group, Inc., 438 U.S. 59, 72, 80-81, 98 S.Ct. 2620, 2629, 2634, 57 L.Ed.2d 595 (1978); Church of Scientology Flag Service Org. v. City of Clearwater, 777 F.2d 598, 606 (11th Cir.1985), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 1973, 90 L.Ed.2d 656 (1986); Rabun County Chamber of Commerce, supra, 698 F.2d at 1104. The Supreme Court has also stated that, in addition to these essential constitutional requirements, a court should consider the case in light of three principles which might counsel judicial constraint, referred to as "prudential" considerations. See Valley Forge Christian College, supra, 454 U.S. at 471, 474, 102 S.Ct. at 757, 759; Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. 91, 99-100, 99 S.Ct. 1601, 1607-08, 60 L.Ed.2d 66 (1979). Those considerations are 1) whether the plaintiff's complaint falls within the zone of interests protected by the statute or constitutional provision at issue; 2) whether the complaint raises abstract questions amounting to generalized grievances which are more appropriately resolved by the legislative branches; and 3) whether the plaintiff is asserting his or her own legal rights and interests rather than the legal rights and interests of third parties. Allen v. Wright, supra, 468 U.S. at 751, 104 S.Ct. at 3325; Valley Forge, supra, 454 U.S. at 474-75, 102 S.Ct. at 759-60; Gladstone, Realtors, supra, 441 U.S. at 100, 99 S.Ct. at 1608.

The standing issue in this case focuses on the appellants' ability to show that they personally suffered some actual or threatened injury resulting from the City's use of its seal on its stationery and official documents. 5 The courts have attempted to define the "admittedly" imprecise concept of injury by describing it as an "injury in fact" that is "distinct and palpable", not "abstract", "conjectural" or "hypothetical". See Allen v. Wright, supra, 468 U.S. at 751, 104 S.Ct. at 3325 (and cases cited therein). There is no minimum quantitative limit required to show injury; rather, the focus is on the qualitative nature of the injury, regardless of how small the injury may be. See United States v. SCRAP, 412 U.S. 669, 689 n. 14, 93 S.Ct. 2405, 2417 n. 14, 37 L.Ed.2d 254 (1973) ("identifiable trifle" sufficient injury to establish standing); Rabun County, supra, 698 F.2d at 1108; accord Action Alliance of Senior Citizens v. Heckler, 789 F.2d 931, 937 (D.C.Cir.1986).

As this court recognized in American Civil Liberties Union v. Rabun County, supra, the concept of injury for standing purposes is particularly elusive in Establishment Clause cases. 698 F.2d at 1102; accord American Civil Liberties Union v. City of St. Charles, 794 F.2d 265, 267-68 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, ---...

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