Federal judge bars Missouri town from displaying crèche on public property

Thursday, October 1, 1998

A federal judge in Missouri has ordered city officials in Florissant to end the town's tradition of displaying a nativity scene in front of the civic center.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry ruled last week that a nativity scene outside the Florissant Civic Center amounted to a government endorsement of Christianity. The judge also permanently barred the city “from erecting any display containing a crèche or other religious symbols at the civic center or on other public property in the city.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri sued Florissant last December after city officials refused to remove the crèche, which depicted the birth of Jesus as described in the New Testament.

Before filing the federal lawsuit, the ACLU sent a letter to the mayor and city attorney claiming the crèche violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it endorsed Christianity.

The city attorney, however, responded that the display did not endorse a religion and refused to remove it. Shortly after declining to remove the crèche, city officials added an array of secular Christmas items, such as a plastic snowman, reindeer and candy canes, in an effort to mute the display's religious message.

Don Michael, Florissant's director of parks and recreation, told Perry that the display was intended to instill goodwill, cheer and peace among the town's citizens during the holiday season.

Perry, however, ruled that the crèche remained “an unambiguously Christian symbol.”

“The erection of the crèche at the main entrance of the Civic Center impermissibly sent a message to the reasonable observer that the Christian religion was relevant to the City of Florissant and thus to an individual's standing in the political community,” Perry wrote.

Perry also said that it did not matter that the Christian display was not placed “at the seat of city government.” She said the city could not “insulate a religious message from constitutional scrutiny by choosing to send it from a setting at the periphery of government functioning.”

Florissant officials had also argued that the secular items added to the display kept it from violating the separation of church and state.

Perry found otherwise.

“The secular figures that the city added to the display after the ACLU's complaint were insufficient to negate or muffle the earlier message of endorsement,” Perry wrote.

Perry's decision also barred Florissant from erecting a different nativity display.

The judge noted that the Missouri Constitution states that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion … and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.”

Perry ruled that because the city “admittedly spent public funds on the holiday display, including the crèche, and spent public funds in erecting and displaying the crèche,” it had also violated the state constitution, therefore warranting the permanent injunction.

Both Florissant's mayor and city attorney have criticized the judge's decision and said they would ask the City Council to back an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We think that the ramifications are far too great to let this ruling stand without a challenge,” Florissant City Attorney John Hessell told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said that the council should try to understand and obey the judge's ruling.

“To suggest that a nativity scene taken directly from the Bible can be made nonreligious by saturating it with secular Christmas symbols is silly,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs added that city officials should not send a message that shows favoritism to Christianity.

“People who put nativity scenes on their front lawns proclaim that theirs is a Christian home,” she said. “People who put menorahs in their windows proclaim that theirs is a Jewish home. Neither of these messages are ones that any city government should end. [But] the Florissant Civic Center belongs to everyone, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists alike” and should not endorse any one religion over another.