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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
MA Church Dismayed over Display
MA Church Dismayed over Display
CLERGY DISTRESSED OVER MASS. DISPLAY MIXING SANTA, NATIVITY; FEARS OF WITCHES, ''DEVIL WORSHIPPERS'' RAISED
Web Posted: December 2, 1999
Some Christian clergy in Somerset, Massachusetts are learning a hard lesson about the First Amendment -- free speech means free speech for everyone, including groups which are unpopular and \theologically incorrect.\
Somerset has been the center of a dispute for several years over a Christian nativity scene erected during the Christmas season in front of the Town Hall. The creche had been a tradition for six decades, but in 1997, American Atheists State Director Gil Lawrence Amancio, represented by the ACLU, filed suit against the display, and argued that it was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
Amancio asked that the display be relocated to the front of a Baptist Church. The town refused.
When Amancio filed suit in U.S. District Court, the city resorted to a common ruse of attempting to \secularize\ the display. This included moving an enormous 40-foot-high plastic Santa Claus -- dubbed \Santazilla\ -- from the local station to the front of Town Hall.
\They're hoping that Santa and other decorations will detract from the 'centrality' of the Nativity scene so they can sneak it under the wire of the First Amendment,\ Amancio told AANEWS. \This is just another ploy to try and 'save the creche' and continue to make what is clearly a religious statement.\
In August, faced with rising legal costs and an increasingly hostile judicial climate regarding such state-church separation cases, the ACLU settled on a compromise with the town of Somerset. The ACLU received $35,000 in compensatory fees; the town was required to \dilute\ the Christian nativity scene and attenuate its \centrality\ by adding plastic candy canes, reindeers, Santa and other holiday-kitsch elements to the Christmas display. The compromise display is scheduled to be unveiled at a lighting ceremony in Somerset on December 15.
Local clergy in Somerset, though, are now speaking out against the arrangement. Six of the town's leading religious luminaries delivered a letter to public officials last month; they say that leaders made no response until they decided to \go public\ with the issue, which includes a lead article in today's edition of the Somerset Herald News.
Rev. Paula P. Durrant of the Congregational Christian Church of Somerset declared that it is \a sign of sad times\ when opinions of religious leaders are not promptly acknowledged by politicians.
The letter reportedly asks that Somerset violate the terms of its settlement agreement, and separate the Christian Nativity scene and a Jewish menorah from the giant Santazilla, reindeer and other items, including a sign reading \Seasons Greetings.\ Prior to the understanding between the town and the ACLU, the menorah and Santa were displayed at Police and Fire Headquarters, with the Christian creche occupying the premier site alone in front of Town Hall.
According to the Herald News, signatories of the letter warned: \In our region there are a variety of groups, witches, Devil Worshippers and representatives of many other religious beliefs. We fear that the creche and the menorah would be compromised even more should other groups seek to have their symbols included.\
Signers of the letter included representatives of the Somerset Baptist Church, United Methodist Church, Christian Congregational Church, St. Patrick's Church, and Temple Beth-El. Rev. Kenneth Scarborough of Somerset Baptist told The Spectator newspaper that he was distressed by the creche and menorah being diminished thanks to other holiday symbols. He now supports displaying the nativity scene in front of his church.
Town council members are divided over the issue as well. Selectman Eleanor Gagnon says that while the \secularized\ display may meet the requirements of the agreement with the ACLU, \To display something without reverence serves no purposes.\ She told the Herald News that she would like to see Santa and other secular items moved back to the Police and Fire Department building, and would even settle for just a lighted Christmas tree in front of the Town Hall. But Town Selectman Chair Christopher Matte says that while he will accept input from local clergy, he wants the display to remain as is, mixing both religious and secular symbols. Selectman William Meehan agreed, saying, \The display out there is for all Somerset to take from it what meaning they wish...\
The Fall River Herald newspaper notes in today's edition that selectmen now face a new debate. \The clergy are saying that the display covers up the creche and may open the door for other symbols to be included...\
WHY THE CONFUSION?
Squabbles over the constitutionality of nativity scenes are now decided on the basis of a controversial 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ALLEGHENY COUNTY v. ACLU GREATER PITTSBURGH CHAPTER (492 U.S. 573). It establishes standards which many atheists and state-church separationists are not pleased with; the developments in Massachusetts, though, suggest that ALLEGHENY may not meet with the approval of religious groups as well.
Before ALLEGHENY, the court had already approved religious displays on government property in LYNCH v. DONNELLY (1984). In the latter decision, the court held that in the context of a larger display -- one including seasonal, secular items like plastic reindeer, candy canes and a wishing well -- a creche was permissible since the overall presentation presumably had a secular basis. In ALLEGHENY, the court refused to stray beyond those limits. A lone cr che could not serve a \secular\ purpose, but when sufficiently diluted with other holiday symbols, would pass constitutional muster. ALLEGHENY was a judgment on two cases. The high court found that one display was violative of the establishment clause because the nativity scene in question was located in a prominent place in the county courthouse. Another won the court's approval, though, since it included a Jewish menorah, which was located outside of a government building and was diluted with secular items.
American Atheists charged at the time that decision like LYNCH and ALLEGHENY were \instruction manuals\ issued by courts to government and religious groups seeking a way of erecting or maintaining religious displays in the public square. Such rulings also fueled controversy; how much \secularization\ would sufficiently dilute a religious display so that it was no longer violative of the First Amendment? A series of odd, often conflicting rulings resulted.
For instance, in 1998, a U.S. District Judge ordered officials in a suburban St. Louis, Mo. town to stop including a Christian creche in the traditional display erected in front of the town's civic center. Judge Catherine Perry opined that the placement of the nativity at the main entrance \impermissibly sent a message to a reasonable observer that the Christian religion was relevant to the City ... and thus to the individual's standing in the political community.\ A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, though, reversed that decision, noting that the nativity was mixed with secular holiday items. The panel cited ALLEGHENY, noting that \a setting which negates the endorsement effect includes things such as the location and the surrounding objects...\
So, for governments and religious groups wishing to erect sectarian displays on public property during the holiday, the guidelines require \secularizing\ any sacred objects. Baby Jesus or other religious icons need help from Santa if they are to be kept in the public square.