February 2016 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United recently filed two legal briefs in cases challenging the display of religious symbols on government property:

In a Dec. 17 brief, Americans Uni­ted told the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a Pennsylvania woman and her minor child should be permitted to sue the New Kensington-Arnold School District over a Ten Commandments display at a local high school.

Marie Schaub filed the suit in 2012 with the assistance of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. U.S. District Court Judge Terrence F. McVerry dismissed the lawsuit in July because her child had changed schools to avoid seeing the religious display. Americans United’s brief argues that it is unreasonable for the court to expect a child to suffer daily exposure to a violation of her constitutional rights and asserts that Schaub’s pre-existing exposure to the display should grant her the legal right to sue.

“The district court’s holdings are plainly wrong. They are contrary to controlling Supreme Court precedent and the prior decisions of this Court,” the brief noted.

Americans United filed the brief in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League, the Central Conference of Am­erican Rabbis, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Sikh Coalition and the Union for Reform Judaism. (Freedom From Religion Foundation v. New Kensington-Arnold School District)

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In a separate brief, Americans United said the city of Grand Haven, Mich., didn’t violate anyone’s free- speech rights when it voted to end display of a Christian symbol on a prominent city-owned hill.

Americans United told the Michigan Court of Appeals that Grand Haven officials have control over what symbols, if any, may be displayed on Dewey Hill.

Last year the Grand Haven City Council voted to end its policy of periodically raising on Dewey Hill a 48-foot tall, 24-foot wide cross, which was attached to a hydraulic lift. The move came thanks to a complaint from Americans United, which objected to the displays of the cross for religious services and other occasions. In December, the hill also played host to a large nativity scene, which likewise will no longer be displayed.

City officials considered allowing other groups to display private messages on the lift or elsewhere on Dewey Hill but rejected that option after a group of residents represented by Americans United expressed interest in erecting messages promoting atheism, LGBT rights and abortion rights.

Instead, the cross has been permanently converted to an anchor. The change, town officials said, will further cement the community’s historic ties to the Coast Guard.

But a group of town residents objected and filed a lawsuit, Dawson v. City of Grand Haven, that essentially would force the city to display the religious symbol. A state court rejected that suit twice in three months last year, noting that Grand Haven officials have the right to decide how the town uses its own property. Nonetheless, the group filed an appeal.

In its brief, which was filed on Dec. 23, Americans United rejected the idea that ending the display of the cross on public property is a violation of free-speech rights.

“The City of Grand Haven preapproved the symbols on the Dewey Hill monument; owns, maintains, and operates the monument; and continues to exercise control over what symbol the monument displays today,” reads the brief. “Thus, the City speaks through the fixture, just as governmental entities have spoken through the erection of permanent monuments for centuries. As government speech, the retractable monument and its use are not governed by the Free Speech Clauses of the Michigan Constitution.”