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It wasn’t Justin Vacula’s distaste for religion that brought him to question the manger scene and menorah on the Luzerne County Courthouse lawn, but his respect for the law.
“I saw the Nativity scene that was lighted up,” said the King’s College student. “I figured it was unconstitutional, so I made the complaint to the ACLU to check on this, and they informed that was, in fact, the case. … I feel it’s our duty as American citizens to stay true to the Constitution.”
Vacula doesn’t believe in a god, but has no problem with others who do. “They’re fine to worship, to pray, that’s fine, but not on the courthouse lawn,” he said. “I made the complaint because it’s a very busy road. Many people are getting the message from the courthouse that this is a Christian area or that we endorse a certain religion.”
He said that a “symbol of thematic unity” for the season would have been fine and acknowledged that wreaths and plastic snowmen were also adorning the lawn, but not close enough to defuse the connotations of the religious symbols.
“It’s not an attack on Christians; it’s a constitutional violation,” he said. “It wasn’t a neutral message of any sort.”
Vacula said he hopes to be involved in helping design next year’s courthouse holiday decorations.
He said he spends a lot of time discussing spirituality, philosophy and religion with professors and fellow students, and attends monthly meetings of the NEPA Free Thought Society.
“I’m not an evil person; I’m not out killing babies. I’m just like everyone else. I just don’t believe in God,” he said, adding, “I hope it’s not ruining Christmas.”
Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said there’s no reason it should because people are more than welcome to express their beliefs on their private property, “but don’t expect my clients’ tax dollars to pay for it.
“I understand people feel very strongly about religion,” she said. “The difference is when the government speaks, it’s supposed to speak for us all.”
Vacula isn’t the first to complain about the situation, she said. “Over the years, we’ve gotten many complaints about the cr?che (Nativity scene) from both Christians and non-Christians, but no one before was willing to brave the abuse that accompanies standing up,” she said. “There’s really no challenge in having respect for the majority. The challenge is in having respect for the minority.”
Rory Sweeney, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 970-7418.