Letter to John Wolfe

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The Honorable John A. Wolfe Mayor Office of the Mayor 360 S Yearling Rd Whitehall OH 43213

Dear Mayor Wolfe:

I am writing on behalf of a concerned Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) member, and other area residents and taxpayers, who object to the erection and maintenance of a nativity scene displayed prominently on city property. FFRF is a national nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, with over 13,000 members across the country. Our purpose is to protect the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

It is our information and understanding that a nativity scene has been erected and placed on a stage in front of the Whitehall Municipal Building. This creche is placed directly in front of the main entrance to the building right below the American and City of Whitehall flags. Additionally, it is placed right between the building’s main entrance and the sign designating the building as "Municipal Building" which also includes the City’s seal.

This display in front of a core government building in Whitehall is unconstitutional and must be taken down immediately. It is unlawful for the government to maintain, erect, or host a holiday display that consists solely of a nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing one religion. The Supreme Court has ruled it is impermissible to place a nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property. See Allegheny v. ACLU of Pittsburgh, 492 U.S. 573 (1989); Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1983).

In County of Allegheny v. ACLU of Pittsburgh, 492 U.S. 573 (1989), the Supreme Court held that a county government’s creche displayed in the county courthouse was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The Court stated,

 

"Lynch v. Donnelly, confirms, and in no way repudiates, the longstanding constitutional principle that government may not engage in a practice that has the effect of promoting or endorsing religious beliefs. The display of the creche in the county courthouse has this unconstitutional effect." Id. at 621.

The Court further determined that the placement of the creche on the Grand Staircase of the county courthouse contributed to its illegality because "no viewer could reasonably think it occupies this location without support and approval of the government." Id. at 599-600. Moreover, the Court found that the nativity scene "sen[t] an unmistakable message that [the county] supports and promotes the Christian praise to God that is the creche’s religious message." Id. at 600.

Displaying an inherently Christian message at the main entrance of Whitehall’s Municipal Building unmistakably sends the message that the city endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display. Given the creche’s prominent placement at the main entrance of Whitehall’s core government building underneath the government flags and behind the Municipal Building’s main sign, it is clear that no area resident, taxpayer or visitor could "reasonably think it occupies this location without support or approval of the government." See 492 U.S. at 599-600.

Furthermore, Justice O’Connor aptly noted in her concurring opinion in Allegheny that "[t]he display of religious symbols in public areas of core government buildings runs a special risk of ‘mak[ing] religions relevant, in reality or public perception, to status in the political community.’ " Id. at 626. Your nativity scene display excludes citizens who are not Christian–Jews, Native American religion practitioners, animists, etc., as well as the significant and growing portion of the U.S. population that is not religious at all (14% of adults), including complainants and taxpayers in Whitehall.

This display also costs the taxpayers, including non-Christian and non-believers, money to maintain and store the creche every year! This is on top of untold labor costs the city incurs to erect and dismantle a stage every year. These costs are likely not de minimis and such government entanglement must end immediately.

Like the nativity display in Allegheny, which was unconstitutional, the nativity display in front of the City of Whitehall’s Municipal Building is unconstitutional. The City of Whitehall is impermissibly endorsing Christianity over other faiths and advancing or promoting religion over non-religion. Certainly, we can agree there are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed. Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship.

We ask that you immediately remove the nativity display from government property. We further request that you notify us promptly of the steps you are taking to remedy this violation of the Establishment Clause.

Sincerely,

Rebecca S. Kratz
Staff Attorney

cc: Mike Shannon, City Attorney

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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