Dec 20, 2007

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged officials in Green Bay, Wisc., to remove a nativity scene from government property.

The display, Americans United points out, amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government. Although officials in the city initially allowed other religious symbols to be displayed on an overhang of the city hall, they have since voted to allow only the nativity scene to remain with several council members expressing the belief that the city should be able to endorse the religious aspects of Christmas.

“There are several courses Green Bay officials could have taken to resolve this matter,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Unfortunately, they rejected them all and chose to go down an unconstitutional path.”

AU’s letter, written by Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Litigation Counsel Aram A. Schvey, cites U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal court precedent to buttress its claim that the religious display is unconstitutional.

“Placing a nativity scene above the entrance to Green Bay’s City Hall sends a strong, unequivocal message to those entering the building that the City favors and aligns itself with Christians, to the exclusion of those who adhere to different faiths,” reads the letter.

The letter notes that Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt recently told National Public Radio that he would not allow other religious groups to erect symbols at city hall. Schmitt said it was his job to “put together a display that reflects what our community is looking for, and . . . I believe that this is what represents the Christmas holiday in the City of Green Bay.”

The letter rejects the city’s argument that the display is permissible because there are secular Christmas decorations elsewhere around the building. It cites a ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Wisconsin, rejecting a similar argument in Chicago.

Lynn said the city would do best to start from scratch.

“The city needs to remove the nativity scene and begin working toward a new holiday display policy for next year that is in line with the commands of the Constitution,” he said.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.