Responding to criticism of church/state lawsuits

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)
Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Brief thoughts concerning criticism of church/state lawsuits…

I was recently involved in a discussion with a humanist who portrayed lawsuits that organizations advocating for the separation of government and religion file as heavy-handed and antagonistic toward religious individuals. I’ll explain that lawsuits are often filed as a last resort and that religious individuals should not feel attacked.

I have worked alongside various legal teams on numerous church/state separation issues in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area. In each situation, they did not immediately file a lawsuit, but rather first sought to discover facts about an issue, speak with government officials, and work toward a resolution without need for a lawsuit. Many situations were resolved without legal action as government officials acknowledged a problem and made amends so that future violations would not happen. Lawsuits are filed as a final option when other means are exhausted.

My activism for the separation of religion and government largely began in 2009 when I challenged a prominent nativity scene featured on a county courthouse lawn. I worked alongside the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State who corresponded with county officials to address this religious display which, rather than being inclusive, prominently featured a Christian viewpoint. The nativity and other decorations including a non-prominently placed menorah were removed and later replaced with a more inclusive display.

During this process, I received a good deal of vitriol from religious individuals. Although I was interviewed in various media outlets including television news and newspapers offering my desire for government neutrality on matters of religion, people were outraged claiming that their rights were being violated – unwilling to depart from a narrative of Christians being ‘under attack’ which was voiced by religious individuals including pastors in the area.421499_10150513069124327_502483225_n

Although there was no lawsuit in the case of the nativity scene and no need for legal action [because county officials remedied the issue by placing a more inclusive display], people falsely spread the lie that legal action occurred and one county official even claimed that since the county couldn’t afford a court challenge the nativity scene was initially removed although, again, no court challenge was necessary. Perhaps he was simply saving face, pandering, rather than admitting a violation had occurred…

Lawsuits are filed as a result of government entanglement with religion only when government officials refuse to remedy a violation following input from various organizations. Advocating for government neutrality on matters of religion isn’t attacking or antagonizing religious individuals, but is instead a stance looking for fairness. At the end of the day, some religious individuals will continue to frame lawsuits as persecution of religious individuals, but this simply isn’t the case. Religious believers can practice religion, but we secularists simply want governments out of that equation.

New Luzerne County Courthouse holiday display

2014 Luzerne County Courthouse holiday display
2014 Luzerne County Courthouse holiday display

This year’s holiday display on Luzerne County Courthouse grounds includes both religious and secular symbols.

Five years ago, in December of 2009, upon first becoming involved with separation of church and state issues, I contacted the American Civil Liberties Union’s Pennsylvania chapter when I had seen a Christian display prominently featured at the Luzerne County Courthouse. Following some uproar, particularly from local citizens, a more inclusive display was erected in 2009.

This year, in 2014, Lzuerne County officials have correctly followed the 2009 inclusive display with another inclusive display. Kudos to them.

While I would like for there to be no religious symbols whatsoever on courthouse grounds — a complete separation of religion and government — I understand that this is not the current legal reality [religious holiday displays can be placed on government property provided there are other items making the display inclusive] and am happy Luzerne County officials, this time around, are adhering to the law.

Both secular and religious individuals wonder why issues like this are important. Why focus efforts on holiday displays and not larger issues like tax laws allowing unfair religious exemptions? My focus is particularly local, in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area, and ‘smaller issues’ like these are important to challenge because people appeal to these ‘smaller issues’ when defending the bigger issues a la ‘well, you see, there is no such thing as separation of church and state because governments place nativity scenes on courthouse lawns.’

It is nice to see that, years later, the ACLU and I have more than likely left a lasting impact and changed things for the better.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Lamenting Luzerne County Courthouse’s religious display

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.

Religious displays to return to Luzerne County Courthouse in 2013?

One of my first (and successful) ventures into secular activism was in December of 2009 when I had filed a complaint concerning a nativity scene — prominently displayed on a corner with floodlights and no other holiday displays — at the Luzerne County Courthouse in Northeastern Pennsylvania [read more here]. The display was taken down and later placed alongside other holiday displays forming an inclusive display. In 2010, the inclusive display returned.

2011 and 2012 saw no religious displays whatsoever — as far as I know — on courthouse property. According to a recent article in The Citizen’s Voice, construction at the courthouse and damage to the displays have resulted in a ‘holiday no-show.’ The county’s engineer, though, alludes to the possibly of religious displays — alongside secular displays — returning to the courthouse in 2013 if the construction schedule allows and perhaps if donations are received.

The article states,

Christmas and holiday decorations may return to the Luzerne County Courthouse lawn in December 2013, county Engineer Joe Gibbons said.

The lawn decorations were not on display this year and last year because of exterior construction work on the courthouse. Some lawn decorations were also damaged while being stored during the September 2011 flood.

“We may consider assembling a display next holiday season if the construction schedule allows,” Gibbons said. “We may also seek donations for repairs to the flood-damaged decorations.”

Why bother? What is the motivation for the county government to not only to place the decorations — many of them religious in nature — but to want to solicit donations for decorations to be placed on the courthouse lawn? Does Luzerne County really want to continue to blur the lines between separation of church and state and risk a lawsuit…especially considering they have been Establishment Clause violators in the past?

The best way for governments to deal with these issues of holiday decorations, I think, is to vow neutrality and not participate in these matters to begin with. Instead allocate your governmental resources to work on problems such as unemployment, crime, education, etc. Plenty of churches, private lawns, and other institutions will likely be more than happy to have holiday displays.