Lamenting Luzerne County Courthouse’s religious display

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The non-inclusive 2013 Luzerne County Courthouse display
The non-inclusive 2013 Luzerne County Courthouse display – notice the prominent nativity scene and the other decorations at a distance

Legal action may soon be needed to remedy a church/state violation of a religious holiday display on Luzerne County Courthouse grounds.

In 2009, with the help of the ACLU, I publicly challenged the constitutionality of a standalone religious display — owned by and erected by government officials — on Luzerne County Courthouse grounds.

I called for an inclusive holiday display rather than a religious display and was vilified by Luzerne County residents (see examples¬†here), most prominently by a radio personality who called me the ‘third most hated person in Luzerne County‘, when the standalone display was taken down. I foresee a similar situation in the coming days and lament this result which could easily be remedied.

Government officials in Luzerne County, especially following controversy in 2009, should know that erecting a standalone religious holiday display is impermissible. Despite the very public situation in 2009, a nativity scene is currently prominently displayed, illuminated by floodlight, on Luzerne County Courthouse grounds.

A menorah is placed several feet away from the nativity, not prominently displayed, and secular decorations are positioned far behind the nativity scene rather than placing all of the holiday decorations together as was the case in 2009

As I explained in a previous piece I authored titled ‘Heavy-Handed Activism?‘ I and organizations I work with do not wish to immediately move to legal action. Instead, we first try to resolve church/state infractions without first resorting to legal action.

What are county officials thinking? Are they arrogant – thinking that nothing will happen and that church/state violations will be tolerated even though they were not, in the same situation, in 2009? Are they incompetent – somehow ignorant of legal implications and unable to realize what an inclusive holiday display looks like even though inclusive displays were eventually erected in 2009? I don’t think it is plausible to believe that county officials are ‘ so busy,’ as some may think, that they cannot take minutes moving decorations to create an inclusive display.

In 2010, county officials passed a resolution stipulating that holiday displays would be inclusive and now are completely disregarding this resolution despite discussion in late 2012 concerning the resolution and the return of a display following its absence in 2012, allegedly due to construction.

What shall happen in coming days? Will the currently existing displays at the Luzerne County Courthouse be modified and integrated to form an inclusive display or will legal action be required to cease this constitutional violation?

If the nativity scene and menorah are taken down, do not be angry with me, but instead direct your anger at Luzerne County officials who refuse to erect constitutional displays and continue to repeat mistakes of the past. All I wish for this Christmas is government neutrality toward religion. If it takes legal measures to achieve this after diplomacy fails, so be it. Let us have separation of church and state rather than religious privileging during December or any other month of the year.

Stay tuned for developments and feel free to leave comments below.

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