Religious-rights group supports Mass. town’s use of Nativity scene

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

A conservative religious-rights group has joined with officials in a Massachusetts town in hopes of persuading a federal appeals court to rule that a public holiday display is constitutional.

In late November, U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns held that a Nativity scene that had been prominently placed outside Somerset's town hall in 1997 ran afoul of the separation of church and state. The judge's decision came in a suit filed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of Somerset residents.

Stearns concluded that because the Nativity scene was the focal point of the government-sponsored holiday display, it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“In sum, I am constrained to conclude that Somerset's display violates the Establishment Clause because the centrality of its Nativity scene conveys to a reasonable viewer the constitutionally forbidden message that the Town of Somerset officially supports Christianity,” Stearns wrote.

The judge's decision did not set well with Somerset officials.

The town's Board of Selectmen responded to the ruling by permitting placement of a stupendous plastic Santa Claus in front of town hall along with a number of other tawdry-looking plastic figures and a sign proclaiming a commitment to religious liberty.

After that action, which irked religious leaders in the community as well as the ACLU, the board was accused of acting in defiance of Stearns' decision.

“Those who care deeply about their important religious symbols should not want the government to display those symbols or demean them by adding enormous plastic figures of Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, or innumerable other secular objects,” said John Roberts, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Then, later in December, the board voted to appeal Stearns' ruling to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a national nonprofit educational and legal group dedicated to greater respect for religion in the public arena, announced late last week it would help town officials fight Stearns' decision before the appeals court.

“We believe town officials have the legal right to display a Nativity scene and it is clear their action is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” said Vincent McCarthy, an ACLJ attorney. “The town of Somerset is displaying a Nativity scene as part of a larger holiday exhibit that includes the display of a menorah and secular symbols of Christmas. There should be no constitutional crisis with this display. The display is both lawful and legal.”

McCarthy added that the ACLJ would submit a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the town to the appeals court.

Lawyers for Somerset had argued before Stearns that its town holiday display also included a menorah and other secular symbols. Stearns, however, noted that the menorah and other symbols Somerset lawyers pointed to were actually in a second display at the town's fire station about a mile away from town hall.

Michael Albert, a Boston attorney, who along with the ACLU of Massachusetts is representing the resident opposed to the government-sponsored display, said that the town's new display with the giant Santa had nothing to do with Stearns' ruling.

Albert said he was confident that the appeals court would uphold Stearns' decision.

“We believe the law is clear that a when a religious display is prominently placed at the seat of government, such display violates the establishment clause,” Albert said. “I think Stearns' decision was proper and I'm confident we will prevail on appeal to the 1st Circuit.”

Albert said he was surprised that Somerset officials littered the town's holiday display with an abundance of secular symbols, especially since a church directly across the street offered to erect the Nativity scene on its property.