Dec 19, 2000

Controversies surrounding government endorsement of religious displays are increasingly prevalent during this year's holiday season, dividing communities and raising contentious legal questions, according to a new report prepared by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Based on information compiled by Americans United members, chapters and the organization's research staff, the national church-state watchdog group reports that there is an exceptional number of incidents surrounding local governments interfering with religion this December.

"It's tragic that the holiday season becomes tarnished when local governments endorse religious displays and divide communities along religious lines," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "We'd all be better off if the government officials and politicians stayed out of the religion business."

Among the many ongoing controversies over government support for religious symbols:

* In Rescue, Calif., a kindergarten classroom has become a point of conflict due to the placement of a life-sized crxe8che surrounded by Christmas angels. Making matters worse, parents of children in the kindergarten class have complained that the teacher, Judy Petry, has decided to also discuss the birth of Jesus with the children. Americans United's legal department has already contacted the school district about the legal transgressions.

* In Broken Bow, Neb., a nativity scene usually displayed at the local city square was removed after a lawsuit was threatened by the ACLU. The crxe8che was brought back, however, after the Broken Bow Chamber of Commerce, which owns the nativity scene, found attorneys willing to volunteer their services to defend the religious display.

* In Norwood, Mass., an elementary school has placed a nativity scene on the school's lawn, continuing a practice that has been repeated for several years. The crxe8che, which is surrounded by hay and an angel, has drawn complaints from a teacher at the school and the Massachusetts chapter of Americans United. So far, school officials have been obstinate and have refused to follow the law on religious displays on public property.

In some instances, however, local officials chose to do the right thing but are now under intense pressure to ignore the law.

* In Lafayette, Ind., county officials declined requests to have a Nativity scene placed in front of the county courthouse. Local residents have begun a petition drive and one man hopes to circumvent the law by building a Nativity scene in the back of his pickup truck and then parking it in front of the building.

* In Eugene, Ore., the City Manager Jim Johnson issued a legal memorandum to city employees, asking them not to display religious decorations in public spaces or places shared with co-workers. Outraged citizens have held protests against the city manager, and Johnson has even received personal threats.

* In Lexington, Mass., residents have been divided over a policy that will not allow a Nativity scene to be placed unattended on the town's historic battle green throughout the holiday season. A Dec. 6 federal court ruling upheld church-state separation.

For AU's Lynn, these controversies are easy to avoid.

"The real solution to these questions is common sense," Lynn said. "The best place for display of our sacred religious symbols is houses of worship and private homes. There's simply no reason for government officials to wade into these controversial areas. They are public servants, not exterior designers.

"As a Christian minister myself, my opposition is to government endorsement of religion, not the religious displays themselves," concluded Lynn. "Many people nationwide already enjoy decorating their homes and houses of worship for the holidays; I don't think they need any help from their local government."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.