Public officials take opposite paths in dealing with religious holiday displays

Friday, December 10, 1999

Debates over the constitutionality of government involvement with religious
holiday displays have prompted – not surprisingly – varying results in locales
where citizens and religious groups seek to showcase their holiday spirit in

The U.S. Supreme Court produced two decisions in the ’80s that federal and
state courts nationwide rely upon when faced with challenges to government
celebration of the religious aspects of Christmas. The differing outcomes of
those two cases were largely influenced by the size and prominence of the
displays as well as whether they included secular nods to the holiday. The
court’s second and most recent ruling on the issue – 1989′s Allegheny County
– stated that “the government’s use of religious symbolism is
unconstitutional if it has the effect of endorsing religious beliefs, and the
effect of the government’s use of religious symbolism depends upon its

On Dec. 8, Lancaster, Ohio, city officials decided that the separation of
church and state would be subverted if they permitted a Nativity scene in a
public park. The decision by the Lancaster Board of Parks and Recreation to bar
the Nativity scene was prompted by a resident’s request to place a symbol of
atheism alongside the crèche.

Terre Vandervoot, Lancaster’s law director, told the board that because the
city could not appear to be endorsing Christianity, if the Nativity scene was
erected then symbols of other religions and beliefs would also be permitted in
the park. During the public board meeting, which about 400 residents attended,
Vandervoot cited the Supreme Court’s rulings to buttress his opinion, and tried
to explain them.

According to The Columbus Dispatch, the Supreme Court’s reasoning did
not set well with many at the Lancaster meeting. Resident Rod Gallagher offered
a typical complaint that the high court had failed to respect the will of a
majority, the newspaper reported.

The high court rulings, however, cited protections outlined in the Bill of
Rights, which acts as a check on government power and often works to save
minority viewpoints from being overwhelmed by majority rule.

In the court’s 1984 decision in Lynch v. Donnelly, Justice Sandra Day
O’Connor noted that “the establishment clause prohibits government from making
adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the
political community.” O’Connor said government violates that precept if it
endorses a religion and sends “a message to nonadherents that they are
outsiders, not full members of the political community.”

The court concluded in Lynch that a Nativity scene in a Rhode Island
public park did not amount to a government endorsement of religion because the
scene was surrounded by secular figures, such as a plastic Santa Claus and
reindeer. Those secular items muted the religious message, the court held,
thereby keeping the Christian symbol from giving observers the impression that
the town was celebrating Christianity.

Meanwhile, officials in Fairfax County, Va., decided last week not to
challenge a federal appeals court ruling that said a resident in a neighboring
county could place a Christian holiday symbol in front of the Fairfax County
Government Center.

Fairfax County officials announced they would allow a Nativity scene to be
placed outside the government center on Dec. 20, citing a policy that says the
center, a large grassy mall surrounded by public sidewalks, is a common area to
be used “for civic, cultural, educational, religious, recreational and similar

For years, county officials had denied Rita Warren, a 71-year-old Fairfax
City resident, from erecting a crèche outside the Fairfax County Government
Center. The officials said the policy applied only to those who lived within
Fairfax County, not residents in other counties such as Warren. Warren, who told
The Washington Post that God and Jesus tell her what to do and what
targets to challenge, sued the county for unconstitutionally applying the
policy. In October, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Warren v.
Fairfax County
that the county’s “exclusion of non-residents” did not serve
a compelling government interest and invalidated the county’s limitation on the
public forum policy.