Anti-religious group challenges Denver’s holiday display

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

A federal court has been asked to force Denver officials to allow an anti-religious display next to a Nativity scene on public property.

On Nov. 28, Julie N. Wells and other Denver members of the nonprofit group the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a display beside a Nativity scene in a fenced-off area on the steps of Denver City and County Building. The display included a sign with several statements opposing theism, the belief in God or gods as creator of the universe, and advocating separation of church and state. The sign also said the display was sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

City officials removed the display the next day and returned it to Wells on Dec. 2. The Denver City Attorney's office told Wells that the display could not remain alongside the other holiday displays unless attended at all times by a member of the group. Attorney Robert Tiernan filed suit yesterday against the mayor and other city and county officials in federal court for refusing to allow the group's display. Tiernan has asked the U.S. District Court to declare the officials' and county action unconstitutional and to enter a preliminary injunction forcing the city to allow the group's messages to be displayed on public property.

'By denying the plaintiffs access to this public forum, defendants have abridged Plaintiffs' First Amendment right to free expression, violated plaintiffs' right to free exercise of religion, established a preferred State religion at the seat of government, and unlawfully denied plaintiffs' right to the use of a public accommodation,' the complaint states.

Tiernan said that half of the holiday display at the City and County Building focuses on the religious aspect of the season.

'The government in allowing the manger scene is establishing Christianity on the city steps,' Tiernan said. 'They have acted with hostility toward people who do not believe in God.'

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's display includes statements such as, 'There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell' and, 'At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail.'

Tiernan said that the private businesses, which helped city and county officials create the Nativity scene, were given full access to the fenced-off area of the steps and not required to attend to the display at all times. Some of the private groups participating in the Nativity scene display include the Coors Brewing Co. and Denver's Rocky Mountain News.

Calls to Assistant City Attorney Stan Sharoff were not returned.