Religion at Illinois city hall, public square draw FFRF scrutiny

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint Dec. 20 to Mayor Robert Butler of Marion, Ill., about religious displays on city property.

The letter objects to a crèche and menorah at the municipal Tower Square. The crèche includes life-sized figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and angels. There's a large star above the display that is affixed to the clock tower. Religious music is played on a sound system around the square. On the opposite side there's a large menorah.

Another nativity scene is prominently located inside City Hall in front of large windows near the entrance.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote in his letter to Butler: "It is our further understanding that Dena Martin and Robert Donelson brought their objections about the display to your attention. We understand that they requested to put up a Wiccan display of their own at Tower Square in celebration of Yule on Dec. 21. We are told that you said you would 'have to think long and hard' about approving the display and have so far declined to allow their display."

Elliott noted that it's unlawful to "maintain, erect, or host a nativity scene and menorah on city property, thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing particular religions. The Supreme Court has ruled it is impermissible to place a nativity scene as the main focus of a display on government property.

He also cited a 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision: "Because City Hall is so plainly under government ownership and control, every display and activity in the building is implicitly marked with the stamp of government approval. The presence of a nativity scene in the lobby, therefore, inevitably creates a clear and strong impression that the local government tacitly endorses Christianity."

The Chanukah menorah has been recognized by the Supreme Court as a religious symbol, Elliott wrote.

Including elements in a display from Judaism and Christianity doesn't exempt the city from constitutional Establishment Clause requirements, he noted.

"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 some religions 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." 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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