Foundation on Solid Ground on Seasonal Cases

Addyston, Ohio

A Christian nativity scene on village property in the Cincinnati suburb of Addyston, Ohio, was taken down after a letter of complaint from the Foundation. An area resident alerted the Foundation on Dec. 10 about the creche on public property next to a village maintenance building.

In her letter to Mayor Dan Pillow, Rebecca Markert, Foundation staff attorney, noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it is illegal for public entities “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 Foundation received no official response from the village, but on Dec. 12 the complainant e-mailed to say the manger was gone: “Never had such a fast result.”

A miracle? We think not. After all, it was Thomas Edison, an atheist, who said that “Genius is 99% perspiration.”

Huntington Station, N.Y.

A Christian nativity scene at the entrance to a municipal fire station in Huntington Station, N.Y., was removed after the Foundation notified the Board of Fire Commissioners it had received a complaint from one of its New York members. (Huntington Station is on Long Island.) Freethinker Walt Whitman was born nearby in the Town of Huntington.

The Foundation’s complainant noted that the creche is erected every year and has been for about 10 years from around Thanksgiving to mid-January. In the Foundation’s Dec. 15 letter, attorney Rebecca Markert noted that courts have consistently ruled it’s unlawful for a public entity “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.”

On Dec. 18, Louis Agiesta, Board of Fire Commissioners chairman, wrote the Foundation to say, somewhat ungraciously, that the nativity scene would come down. “How anyone can be offended by a display that stands for the concept of peace on earth and goodwill to men escapes us, but we have nevertheless seen to it that the display is removed and that staff should consider a more neutral theme for 2010.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, said, “A nativity scene is not a symbol of peace. More people have died in the name of religion than for any other reason, and many of them in the name of Christianity.

“We have no objection to nativity scenes on private property, but of all places, a public fire station that serves people of all faiths or of no faith should be neutral about religion,” Gaylor said.

“We will have true peace on Earth and good will toward all when we get religion and its dogma out of all government,” she added.

Warren, Mich.

A federal judge agreed with the Macomb County Road Commission that it could deny a permit for a Christian nativity scene on the median of an eight-lane highway in Warren, Mich.

The Foundation brought the original complaint in December 2008 and filed an amicus brief supporting the Road Commission after the owner of the nativity scene sued the county. The Road Commission had refused to issue a permit in 2009 for the manger scene, saying it would amount to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and was a potential traffic hazard.

On Dec. 28, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen rejected owner John Satawa’s October request for a temporary order that would let him put up the display for 30 days. (Now, the parties have each filed briefs on whether the ruling should stand as the final order.)

After hearing oral arguments, Rosen inspected the site in question. Addressing Satawa’s claim that his free speech rights were being taken away, Rosen said in his 39-page ruling that such a median “cannot be a place intended for bringing citizens together to exchange ideas, which, of course, is at the core of the ‘public forum’ designation.”

The county also said the display in the right-of-way was a safety hazard. Traffic counts showed that more than 82,000 vehicles a day used the road at speeds in excess of 50 mph at times.

Rosen agreed, saying the display “could impede sight lines.” The county also has legitimate concerns whether it “would have to allow all private installations of all shapes and sizes in medians all over Macomb County,” he said.

And, Rosen noted, Satawa has a “comparable viable site” only a few hundred feet away on St. Anne’s Catholic Church property, a site “with virtually no public safety implications.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, praised the work of pro-bono Michigan counsel Danielle Hessell of the firm Butzel Long.

Charleston, S.C.

A Foundation complaint about a Christian nativity scene and Latin cross at Charleston Fire Station No. 12 had the city in a tizzy.

After the station had put up a Christian display in December, as it had done in previous years (something other Charleston fire stations hadn’t done), Foundation Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the city to complain:

“Displaying this inherently religious symbol on the rooftop and lawn of a city-run firehouse unmistakably sends the message that the city of Charleston endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display. When the City displays this nativity scene, it places the imprimatur of the city government behind the Christian religious doctrine.”

The letter to Mayor Joe Riley and Fire Chief Thomas Carr noted that the violation had been recurring since at least 2004 despite complaints over the years by the Foundation and other civil liberties groups. Initially this year, reported the Foundation’s complainant, a creche was put up, but without last year’s illuminated cross atop the firehouse.

After the Foundation faxed its Dec. 17 letter to the city, the cross reappeared in a new location by the station’s front door, necessitating the need for another letter:

“The firehouse is clearly marked as ‘Charleston Fire Station No. 12,’ which allows all passersby to identifity it as a city building,” the letter said. “Its hosting of a powerful sectarian symbol cannot be seen as a traditional decoration of the holiday season, but instead can only be a message of support for Christianity.”

After receipt of the second letter, the Foundation received an e-mail Dec. 21 from Susan Herdina, assistant corporation counsel for the city: “The Fire Department has advised me that the nativity scene at Fire Station 12 and the cross on the firehouse roof have been removed. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.”

But on Dec. 22, the nativity scene returned, surrounded by secular trimmings to allegedly comply with a Supreme Court ruling that permits manger scenes on public property if they’re part of an overall “secular” Christmas display. The Foundation noted the “sham” quality of this too-little, too-late action, obviously taken to ensure a manger scene stayed at the fire station at Christmas time.

By Dec. 23, the city said it would “permanently” leave the lighted cross beside a memorial to Charleston firefighters who died in a June 2007 fire. A photo taken at the time of the initial complaint showed the lighted cross leaning against the small memorial near the firehouse entrance.

According to Markert, the cross on display “is, and always has been, erected and maintained as a Christmas decoration at Fire Station No. 12. In fact, the cross was only put up on Dec. 17 this year, a day after the nativity scene was erected. Claims that this illuminated cross, which graced the firehouse rooftop last year, is part of a memorial to fallen firefighters is disingenuous. The only reason for displaying this cross is to convey an endorsement of Christianity. That message violates the First Amendment.” Stay tuned.

Indiana School Admits Prayers Wrong

A seventh-grade basketball coach in Bunker Hill, Ind., had no business offering prayers at practices and games along with advice on stopping opponents’ drives along the baseline.

That was the gist of a directive to all Maconaquah School Corp. officials, coaches and extracurricular sponsors from Superintendent Debra Jones.

Earlier, a parent with a student in the school district had filed a complaint with the Foundation. The student said the seventh-grade boys basketball coach was instigating prayers regularly with players. The parent was not opposed to prayer but to having it occur without parental permission in a public school.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and teacher- or school-led prayer in public schools,” wrote Rebecca Markert, Foundation attorney, in a letter to the school. Courts have also struck down student-initiated pregame prayer and coaches participating in student prayer circles as unconstitutional.

“The prayers before the Macona­quah Middle School’s basketball games and practices constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion,” the letter said. Markert also noted Foundation concerns “that the prayerful practices are not isolated at Maconaquah Middle School, and do not solely occur with the seventh-grade boys’ basketball team, but rather are a frequent practice in your district at public school athletic games.”

Superintendent Jones said the administration has thoroughly re­viewed the complaint with the School Board and the school’s attorney. Jones asked all school officials to “reflect on this letter and refrain from leading prayer at any school function as directed by the Supreme Court.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation