Pennsylvania County Agrees To Remove Religious Symbols From Courthouse Lawn

December 17, 2009

Luzerne County Courthouse Display Of Nativity Scene And Menorah Violated Constitution, Civil Liberties Groups Advised

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

Wilkes-Barre, Pa. – The Luzerne County Commissioners have agreed to remove two separate religious displays – a crèche and a menorah – from the lawn of the Luzerne County Courthouse after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a Dec. 11 letter, the two civil liberties groups informed the county that the displays are an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

“The reason the law forbids government endorsement of religion is because, in the words of Justice O'Connor, ‘endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherent that they
are insiders, favored members of the political community,’” said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The courthouse -- the symbol of the law in Luzerne County -- is an especially important place to respect the diversity of beliefs in our community.”

Added the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “I expect to see religious symbols at houses of worship, not government buildings that serve Americans of all faiths and none. I am pleased that the Luzerne County Commissioners realized that these displays violated the Constitution and took action to remove them.”

The crèche and menorah are owned and maintained by Luzerne County. The civil liberties groups were alerted to the presence of the religious emblems by local members of the Northeast Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, including Justin Vacula and Rodney Collins.

"I'm happy the Luzerne County Courthouse will be taking down its religious displays and will no longer communicate a message of supporting religion to every person passing the courthouse," said Vacula. "The Luzerne County Courthouse is now a place for everyone."

The law on public displays is clear, according to the letter sent to the Luzerne County Commissioners on Dec. 11. A government entity may only erect religious symbols if they are part of a broader secular display. The religious elements cannot stand alone, as they do in this case. Alternatively, the government may also declare a space an open public forum, where any individual or group is welcome to put up a display.

NEPA Freethought Society is represented by Roper and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Ayesha N. Khan and Richard B. Katskee of Americans United.

More information about the issue, including photos and a copy of the December 11 letter, is available at: www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/northeastpennsylvaniafreet.htm

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