Legal Disputes Over Religious Symbols Roil Holiday Season.


A federal judge has sparked controversy by ordering the removal of a Nativity scene from the city hall lawn in St. Ann, Mo.

U.S. District Judge Charles A. Shaw ruled that the city's sponsorship of the creche violates the separation of church and state. "It's something seen by the public, and it fosters the image that the city of St. Ann is favoring one religion over another," Shaw said Dec. 9. "The current Nativity scene has to go."

The Missouri affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to block the government-sponsored Christian display. The ACLU said it took action because St. Ann Mayor Claude Buchheit broke a promise he made during the 1997 Christmas season to conform the display to the law in the following year. The city had been erecting the Nativity scene every Christmas for the past 50 years.

About an hour after Shaw's ruling, a municipal crew descended on the site and hauled away the figures.

St. Ann City Clerk Rhoda Womack told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that some 300 phone calls were received at city hall within two hours of the judge's decision, all of them opposed to the creche removal.

But the Post-Dispatch supported the action. "Just as the government can't stand in the way of a citizen's religious observance," the newspaper observed, "it can't force a particular religious observance on its citizens. By erecting a religious display, like a creche, a city is endorsing a religion. That leaves those who don't belong to the favored religion out in the cold, outsiders in their own city.

"Religious freedom is an inalienable right of all Americans," the editorial concluded. "The best way to protect it is to keep government out of religion."

The recent holiday season saw the usual number of legal battles over government display of religious symbols on public property.

* Eddy County, N.M., officials figured out a way to avoid a church-state lawsuit: They added secular holiday symbols to the Carlsbad holiday display, including a Santa Claus wearing a cowboy outfit, Mickey Mouse, a saguaro cactus and a few plywood snowmen, reported the Albuquerque Journal.

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit from the ACLU, the Eddy County Commissioners at first voted to refuse to remove the Nativity scene. They later decided to add the secular items, a practice...

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