Sec­u­lar groups ring in sea­son by tak­ing on Na­tiv­ity scenes

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

For as long as any­one can re­mem­ber, a Na­tiv­ity scene has been dis­played dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son in front of the pub­lic li­brary in Em­maus, Penn­syl­va­nia. But not this year.

After Amer­i­cans United for Sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State dan­gled the threat of a law­suit, the bor­ough agreed re­luc­tantly to end the tra­di­tion this year. The scene has since found a new home on Main Street out­side the Em­maus Moravian Church.

Not every­one was happy about it. Some ar­gued that the dis­play hon­ored the bor­ough’s dis­tinctly Chris­tian roots: Em­maus was founded by the Mo­ra­vians and named after the bib­li­cal town where Je­sus was seen by two of his dis­ci­ples after his Cru­ci­fix­ion and Res­ur­rec­tion.

“There were a cou­ple of mem­bers of the coun­cil who felt strongly,” said bor­ough man­ager Shane Pepe. “Their emo­tional re­sponse was, ‘Why should we bow down once again to an overly sen­si­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion that is look­ing to sue peo­ple?’ But we’re not fight­ing a le­gal bat­tle over this.”

For athe­ist and sec­u­lar rights groups, the hol­i­day sea­son has be­come the busiest time of the year as they ring in the win­ter sol­stice by tak­ing on pub­lic Christ­mas and Hanukkah dis­plays seen as vi­o­lat­ing church-state sep­a­ra­tion.

An­nie Lau­rie Gay­lor, co-pres­i­dent of the Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion, said her or­ga­ni­za­tion has han­dled hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of such cases over its 40-year his­tory. The foun­da­tion now has nine lawyers and two le­gal as­sis­tants on staff.

“All we do in De­cem­ber is this kind of thing,” Ms. Gay­lor said. “Peo­ple will be driv­ing past their city hall on Christ­mas Eve and send us an email with a pic­ture be­cause they’re of­fended. It goes on all through De­cem­ber and into Jan­uary.”

Last week, the city of Dover, Ohio,

agreed to move its Na­tiv­ity scene and Ten Com­mand­ments dis­play from pub­lic prop­erty to the grounds of a lo­cal church after the foun­da­tion threat­ened le­gal ac­tion.

“We’re not try­ing to do away with re­li­gious dis­plays,” Ms. Gay­lor said. “They be­long on pri­vate prop­erty. They don’t be­long on gov­ern­men­tal prop­erty, where the fa­vored re­li­gion is en­dorsed and other peo­ple are ex­cluded. That’s what you would ex­pect in a theoc­racy.”

Of­ten all it takes is a sin­gle let­ter of com­plaint to per­suade a lo­cal gov­ern­ment to re­move a creche — or re­duce its promi­nence by adding non­re­li­gious sym­bols such as rein­deer and Santa — which frus­trates re­li­gious free­dom groups such as Becket.

“There are al­ways some Scrooges try­ing to spoil the Christ­mas or Hanukkah sea­son,” said Eric Bax­ter, Becket vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel.

He said the courts are mov­ing away from the idea that a meno­rah or creche in front of city hall vi­o­lates the con­sti­tu­tional pro­hi­bi­tion against state-spon­sored re­li­gion un­less leav­ened with sec­u­lar sym­bols or thrown open to all com­ers.

“I think ul­ti­mately the Supreme Court is mov­ing to­ward a stan­dard that says, ‘Look, you can have authen­tic cel­e­bra­tions that rep­re­sent the cul­ture of the com­mu­nity as long as you’re not ex­clud­ing one re­li­gion over an­other,’ ” Mr. Bax­ter said. “And just be­cause you have those kinds of dis­plays that are cel­e­brat­ing authen­tic cul­tural events doesn’t mean you have to in­clude crit­i­cal state­ments of those events or dis­parag­ing or cyn­i­cal state­ments.”

The cur­rent stan­dard has led to eclec­tic — some would say whim­si­cal, oth­ers ghastly — hol­i­day fo­rums such as the one at the Wis­con­sin State Capi­tol, which has fea­tured anti-re­li­gious con­tri­bu­tions such as a manger scene re­plac­ing the baby Je­sus with a “fly­ing spaghetti mon­ster.”

Last week, the Sa­tanic Tem­ple was cleared to place a statue at the Illi­nois Capi­tol called “Knowl­edge Is the Great­est Gift,” show­ing a woman’s fore­arm with an ap­ple.

For 23 years, Ms. Gay­lor said, her group has placed a win­ter sol­stice sign at the Wis­con­sin Capi­tol and in re­cent years in­cluded a “Bill of Rights Na­tiv­ity” fea­tur­ing a cutout of three Found­ing Fa­thers and the Statue of Lib­erty.

“It’s kind of a clut­ter at this time of year, and we don’t think it re­ally be­longs at the state Capi­tol, and we have long said if they didn’t have re­li­gion at the state Capi­tol, we would not be there,” Ms. Gay­lor said. “But if they’re go­ing to have re­li­gion, we’re go­ing to be there, too.”

Three years ago, Texas Gov. Greg Ab­bott re­moved the foun­da­tion’s “Bill of Rights Na­tiv­ity,” call­ing it a “ju­ve­nile par­ody,” but a fed­eral court ruled against him last year on First Amend­ment grounds. He has ap­pealed the de­ci­sion.

With le­gal prece­dents like that, how­ever, it’s lit­tle won­der that small towns such as Em­maus (pop­u­la­tion 11,400) are re­luc­tant to charge into the court­house to de­fend their Na­tiv­ity scenes.

“It was a tra­di­tion in the com­mu­nity based on the his­tory of the com­mu­nity. That’s why it was put up,” Mr. Pepe said. “We got this let­ter and, quite hon­estly, it’s not worth fight­ing in a court of law over some­thing we think we would prob­a­bly lose. And it’s in a more vis­i­ble lo­ca­tion now any­way.”

Mr. Bax­ter said he can hardly blame them, given the risks of oner­ous le­gal costs and nega­tive pub­lic­ity.

“The courts have made such a mess of this area that a lot of cities and towns are afraid they’ll be sued and they don’t want to spend a lot of money de­fend­ing them­selves, even though there are or­ga­ni­za­tions that would rep­re­sent them at re­duced or no cost,” he said. “But they just fig­ure the has­sle is not worth mak­ing an is­sue of this.”

What may turn the tide, he said, are re­cent cases such as the 2014 de­ci­sion in fa­vor of leg­isla­tive prayer in the town of Greece, New York.

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of the Bladens­burg Peace Cross in Prince Ge­orge’s County, a pub­lic war me­mo­rial.

If the high court holds that such re­li­gious sym­bols are con­sti­tu­tional, “that would have a big im­pact on these hol­i­day dis­play cases, re­in­forc­ing that the es­tab­lish­ment clause was in­tended to pre­vent co­er­cion, to pro­tect peo­ple from be­ing co­erced into re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity that they dis­agree with,” Mr. Bax­ter said.

“It wasn’t in­tended as a gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship tool to de­cide what aspects of his­tory and

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An­nual bat­tles over erect­ing Na­tiv­ity scenes on pub­lic land con­tinue to pit some res­i­dents against ad­vo­cacy groups push­ing sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. Some com­mu­ni­ties say a court fight isn’t worth it.

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