ACLU of Montana Settles Lawsuit Over Ten Commandments, Nativity Scene Placed on County Property

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
October 12, 2000 12:00 am

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BILLINGS, MT–The American Civil Liberties Union today announced a settlement in its lawsuit against Custer County officials over the display of religious symbols on government property.

Under the settlement, which resolves an ACLU lawsuit filed last December 1999, a Ten Commandments monument will be moved from a prominent place on the courthouse grounds and a seasonal nativity scene will be removed from county property.

“This case fundamentally has not been about the Nativity Scene or the Ten Commandments, which are time-honored symbols of faith entitled to reverence,” said Scott Crichton, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana. “This case is about government.”

“Under our Constitution, the government has no business erecting, accepting, or maintaining religious monuments on public property,” he said. “Such symbols of faith belong in churches, synagogues and homes, not courthouses and other seats of power of our secular government.”

Brigitte Anderson, President of the ACLU of Montana, said that she and her family enjoy their own Nativity scene at home, moving Mary and Joseph closer to the manger each night as the day of Christ’s birth approaches.

“There are so many beautiful displays of crèche scenes around the state; in private yards, outside and inside churches. Christ is not in need of government assistance,” she said.

Under the agreement, the county will move the Ten Commandments monument from in front of the courthouse to the northwest corner of the lawn and add four similar monuments that outline the “Evolution of Laws.” The additional monuments are intended to give context to the Ten Commandments as a basis of the nation’s laws and to offset a religious connotation.

The nativity scene, which used to be displayed by the county nursing home and has been arranged on the courthouse lawn for five holiday seasons, will be given to a non-government entity, according to the agreement.

The ACLU said the lawsuit was a “last attempt” to nudge Custer County into addressing the possible unconstitutionality of the displays. The organization “tried diplomacy”through letters and other actions that requested change, she said. “We didn’t get any response, we didn’t get any movement, so we were forced to sue,” Crichton said.

“Religion has flourished here precisely because it is separate from government,” he added. “That wall of separation has served us well for over two hundred years, allowing the United States, in large part, to avoid the religious hatred, killing – indeed genocide – so prevalent in the past in other countries and still ongoing today. Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, Hindus, atheists and others, all are welcome here. By the mandate of our Founders, no government – state, local or federal – can send a message to these citizens that their beliefs are second-rate.”

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