More debate prompted by religious symbols on public property

Monday, December 21, 1998

Holiday displays with religious symbols on government property spurred more constitutional debates last week.

In two Massachusetts cities, government officials permitted religious symbols to remain in their holiday displays, provoking a dispute. But in New Mexico, a similar controversy was resolved.

The city solicitor for Worcester said a menorah displayed on land owned and maintained by the city did not violate the separation of church and state. Attorneys for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., complained to city officials that religious symbols should not be placed on government property.

David Moore, Worcester's city solicitor, said that the appearance of government endorsement of religion would only be created if the menorah were placed in front of, inside of or next to a government building.

Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United, said that Moore's interpretation was too simplistic.

“It is simply not that cut and dried,” Benen said. “In a diverse society such as ours, there is no way that government officials can create a holiday display that will please everyone. Our position has been to dissuade government from becoming involved in the business of endorsing religious holidays.”

Benen said he did not know whether his group would sue Worcester city officials.

In western Massachusetts, city park commissioners in Pittsfield voted 3-1 to allow residents to erect a crèche in a park on Christmas. The commissioners, however, said the crèche could be displayed only between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Christmas day. The city solicitor said the display was permissible as a private expression of opinion on a public site normally used for such purposes.

In Albuquerque, N.M., the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said today it was satisfied with a change made to a county courthouse Nativity display after the ACLU had threatened a lawsuit last week.

The Eddy County Commission had voted unanimously last week to keep a Nativity scene outside the courthouse and said it was willing to go to court to defend its decision.

“It is simply a part of the celebration of Christmas as recognized by every government agency,” Commissioner Glenn Collier had said.

But today, New Mexico ACLU director Keith Elston credited the county with resolving the matter by adding a number of secular wood cutout figures to the Nativity display. These included a Santa Claus, elves, a sleigh with presents, cactuses and cartoon characters.

“At this point we believe the matter is closed,” Elston said. “The added decorations have complied with Supreme Court rulings, and we are happy with the quick response by the county commissioners.”

Elston praised the efforts of County Attorney Cas Tabor for working out an imaginative solution to a church-state separation violation.

But Elston also lamented that governments get themselves into the business of religious displays in the first place.

“To some extent this is a shame,” he said of the exhibit additions. “Obviously this does trivialize a religious symbol. … It would be nice to see local churches sponsor Nativity scenes each year on their own property” rather than expect government to do so, Elston said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.