ACLU of Rhode Island Sues On Behalf of Town Resident's Objection to City Hall Religious Display

December 22, 2003 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI – Acting on behalf of a lifelong resident of Cranston, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging the life-sized nativity scene and menorah in front of Cranston City Hall, as well as the policy that Mayor Stephen Laffey recently implemented to authorize those displays.

“Something is wrong when a mayor takes it upon himself to decide what are or are not appropriate displays for the celebration of religious holidays,” said Stephen Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “As we have seen time and again, whenever government gets involved in religion, it ends up trivializing it. That is a major reason why religious displays belong on private property, promoted by private individuals and religious institutions themselves, and not by politicians.”

In an attempt to water down the religiosity of the display, the mayor has approved the erection of other displays, including 15 flamingos in Santa Claus hats representing the “Church of the Flamingos.” Since the controversy erupted, a number of City Council members have expressed opposition to the mayor’s actions.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a court order barring both the future erection of religious displays on the front lawn of Cranston City Hall and the implementation of the mayor’s new policy.

“I feel very strongly that religion simply is not the business of government,” said Grace C. Osediacz, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Rhode Island was founded on the principle that religion and government should be separate. I’m outraged that any public official would invite the placement of religious symbols right in front of City Hall.”

The displays were erected with the approval of the mayor pursuant to a new city policy designating the front lawn of City Hall as a “limited public forum open for the purpose of appropriate seasonal and holiday displays” from December 5 to January 1. The policy gives the mayor sole authority to approve all “appropriate holiday and seasonal decorations ? appropriate being defined as being suitable and proper for the holiday occasion.”

The lawsuit makes a number of points in arguing that the display and the mayoral policy violate the First Amendment, including the following:

  • The menorah and the nativity scenes are religious symbols and deliver an overtly religious message. In view of the placement of these religious symbols “at the threshold of the seat of government for the City of Cranston, between a public school and the School Administration Building, these displays have the principal and primary effect of advancing religion, and deliver a plain message that the Defendant Mayor and Defendant City endorse, sanction, promote, support and approve of the overtly religious message.”
  • The mayor’s effort “to legitimize these religious displays by declaring the lawn a ‘limited public forum’ that exists only during the time of these Jewish and Christian religious holidays is pretextual and legally inadequate. The front lawn of City Hall is not available as a public forum at any time other than Chanukah, the winter holiday of the Jewish religion, and Christmas, the Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christian savior.”
  • In light of the absence of a public forum on City Hall lawn during any non-sectarian holidays “or during any other time of the year for any other purpose, the creation of a ‘limited public forum’ from December 5 to January 1 further violates the First Amendment as it contributes to the appearance that the City of Cranston endorses two dominant religions in particular, Christianity and Judaism, and in general favors religion and religious holidays.”
  • The policy, by giving a government official the authority to decide what are and are not “appropriate” religious symbols of a holiday, violates the First Amendment.

“The religious displays on the threshold of the seat of city government in Cranston require all who have business in city hall to see the city’s display of religion,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Miriam Weizenbaum. “The presence of flamingos and snow men doesn’t change that.”

The lawsuit was filed by ACLU volunteer attorneys Weizenbaum and Amato DeLuca on behalf of life-long Cranston resident Grace C. Osediacz. A hearing in the case is not expected until sometime in 2004, and thus the lawsuit will affect only future displays, not this month’s display, which is scheduled to come down.

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