Southern Missouri county asked to remove nativity scene from courthouse lawn

Jan 10, 2014

 

A nativity scene is displayed in front of the courthouse in Oregon County, Mo. The American Humanist Association has asked the county to take the nativity down, calling it unconstitutional.
A nativity scene is displayed in front of the courthouse in Oregon County, Mo. The American Humanist Association has asked the county to take the nativity down, calling it unconstitutional.
Credit Courtesy American Humanist Association

A nativity scene displayed on the lawn of the courthouse in Oregon County, Mo., has been called unconstitutional by the American Humanist Association, a secular advocacy group.

The county has displayed the nativity scene on the courthouse lawn for the past four or five years.

But on Thursday, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center – the legal arm of the association – sent a letter to the county’s presiding commissioner, Patrick Ledgerwood, saying the display violates the Establishment Clause and should be removed.

“You cannot have a display that prominently promotes one particular religious view, and that’s exactly what this display does,” said David Niose, who directs the legal center.

The nativity itself isn’t the issue – it’s where it is displayed.

“We are not opposed to nativity scenes, per se,” Niose said. “That nativity scene would look beautiful on a church lawn or on a private home lawn, but it just does not belong at a court house.”

He added, “Christianity is fine, but we just don’t want the government endorsing Christianity, any more than we would want the government endorsing Scientology, or Judaism or Islam. We just want a secular public grounds.”

The letter compares the Oregon County display with two others, which both were brought to the Supreme Court.

One of those cases was Lynch v. Donnelly, in 1984. The city of Pawtucket, R.I., included a creche in its holiday display in a private park. The rest of the display was secular and featured Santa Claus, his sleigh, carolers, a Christmas tree, a cut-out clown and other non-religious characters, along with a “Season’s Greetings” banner.

Since the creche was just one religious symbol amid many secular ones, the Supreme Court ruled that it was OK – the city wasn’t violating the Establishment Clause.

In 1989, a nativity and a menorah in Pittsburg, Penn., came into question in Allegheny v. ACLU.

A nativity scene, donated by the Holy Name Society, was on display inside the courthouse. There were other decorations, such as Santa Clauses, in other parts of the courthouse, but the nativity was the focus. The court ruled the nativity unconstitutional because, unlike the display in Lynch v. Donnelly, it was the focus – not a small part of something larger. The fact that it depicted the Christ child, a deity to Christians, was also problematic.

Meanwhile, an 18-foot menorah outside the City County Building was found acceptable. It was next to a 45-foot Christmas tree, which the court considered a secular symbol. A sign about liberty was also part of the display, and in the eyes of the court, that lessened the possibility of the display being seen as an endorsement of Christianity and Judaism. And while the menorah commemorated what the Jews believe to be a miracle from God, it didn’t depict the person of a deity.

According the humanist group’s letter, the nativity in Oregon County is more like the one in the Allegheny case.

“When a matter of law is this clear, it sometimes is just a matter of pointing it out to the public officials in charge,” Niose said. 

The humanist group has asked for a reply by Jan. 17. At that time, Niose said, the group will determine its next steps, based on what the county does. 

“We’re hoping the county realizes that what it’s doing is improper, and we’re hoping they take down the nativity scene, and they promise not to put it up again next year,” Niose said.

We have reached out to Ledgerwood in Oregon County, and we are awaiting his response.

Last May, the American Humanist Association’s legal center sent a letter to Fayette High School in Missouri, asking that it put an end to prayers being led by a teacher. The association then filed a lawsuit in November.

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values (ColumbiaFAVS.com), mid-Missouri's source for nonsectarian religion news.