(Madison, Wis.) The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 26 challenging the unlawful display of a manger scene at the entrance of city hall in Green Bay, Wis., in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Green Bay includes 14 individual plaintiffs of diverse religious and nonreligious views, and additionally names Green Bay City Council President Chad Fradette and Jim Schmitt, Mayor of Green Bay.
"Our legal action was driven by local residents," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. "Many Green Bay citizens contacted us over their dismay that city government would thumb its nose at the constitutional principle of state/church separation, and deliberately provoke a divisive controversy in Green Bay."
"We're grateful not just to our named plaintiffs, who include Foundation members, but also a Lutheran, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist, a Wiccan and an Episcopalain -- and to many others who volunteered to be part of the lawsuit if needed," said Foundation co-president Dan Barker.
The legal complaint spells out the chronology of the Green Bay violation, which involved the Council president vowing to place a nativity scene at city hall because the Foundation had complained about an unlawful nativity display in Peshtigo, Wis.
"Council President Fradette deliberately used his public office to place an inherently Christian symbol prominently on government property at the entrance to City Hall, the principal location of local government, rather than on his private property, precisely in order to antagonize, offend and challenge those persons who object to the public sponsorship of religious symbols on public property."
The Complaint alleges an open records violation at the Dec. 11 meeting in which a committee chaired by Fradette approved his request to prominently place the nativity scene on the roof of the entrance.
"Public and private communications by the Defendants reflect their intent to provoke and marginalize persons who do not share their views regarding the public display and promotion of religion by the City," the Complaint adds.
The Complaint notes the subsequent vote by the City Council to place a moratorium on the public display of any religious symbols other than the Christian Nativity scene, which "preferentially conveys endorsement, promotion and/or advancement of religion."
Among the plaintiffs are Taku Ronsman and Wendy Coriell, who sought unsuccessfully to place other symbols at city hall, and Michael Bergman, who had expressed concern to the city over the Christian endorsement and wondered if he could display a Buddhist symbol to coincide with a major Buddhist holiday in May.
The Foundation Complaint charges that "objectors and dissenters are shown to be political outsiders and discouraged from challenging the official view that public sponsorship of religious displays is an appropriate exercise of government authority."
"The Defendants' actions constitute government speech deliberately intended to be broadcast as officially accepted dogma, and which hostile message is intentionally directed at political outsiders," the Complaint continues.
Besides the Foundation, plaintiffs are: Wendy Coriell, Michael Bergman, Gail and Wayne Vann, Taku Ronsman, James White, Jill White, Jeffrey Fondrliak, Robert Howe, Amy Wolf, Michael Maternowski, Angie Moon, Erik Eisenheim and Morgan Michaela Thompson.