Green Bay Letter

Mr. James J Schmitt

Mayor of Green Bay
100 North Jefferson Street
Green Bay, WI 54301-5026

RE: Nativity Scene on City Hall

Dear Mayor:

We write on behalf of our Green Bay members, concerning the nativity scene just placed this week by vote of the City Council on the roof of the entrance of Green Bay City Hall. The Foundation is a national, not-for-profit organization, with over 11,000 members, based in Madison, Wis., whose purpose is to protect the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

The crèche is an inherently religious (and, in particular, Christian) symbol. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to place a nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property. County of Allegheny v. ACLU of Pittsburgh, 492 U.S. 573 (1989). In particular, Allegheny ruled that a nativity scene may not be placed at the entrance of public building, which is exactly what the City Council has done this week in defiance of Supreme Court dictates.

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 crèche at city hall has this unconstitutional effect. Id. at 621.

“The display of religious symbols in public areas of core government buildings runs a special risk of ‘mak[ing] religion relevant, in reality or public perception, to status in the political community.’ The Court correctly concludes that placement of the central religious symbol of the Christmas holiday season at the Allegheny County Courthouse has the unconstitutional effect of conveying a government endorsement of Christianity.” Id. at 626 27 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

The fact that a private party has displayed and maintained the nativity scene does not alleviate the constitutional concerns. The vote on Monday simply demonstrates that the government is endorsing the religious message, rather than communicating a message of its own. But the Establishment Clause does not limit only the religious content of the government’s own communications. It also prohibits the government’s support and promotion of religious communications by religious organizations or private citizens. Id. at 600 01.

Similarly, displaying a crèche on the city hall building conveys the message that the City Council endorses Christianity, in violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

We ask the City immediately remove the offending symbol from the Capitol grounds and alleviate any constitutional violations. Thank you for your promptest attention to this matter. We await a reply at your earliest convenience.


Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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