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Is it OK for Lee County to display Nativity scene?

Conservatives and liberals give similar advice

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
A local church again has sponsored a Nativity scene on the lawn of the Old Lee County Courthouse in Dixon. Such displays on government property are constitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, but at least one county resident, Matt Fitcher of Dixon, said it "doesn't belong in front of the courthouse." A letter to the editor written by Fitcher is on Page A6 of today's edition.

DIXON – A Nativity scene sits on the lawn of the Old Lee County Courthouse, along busy Galena Avenue.

Is the religious display constitutional?

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, Nativity scenes are constitutional if properly displayed.

Chris Henkel, the county official in charge of the old courthouse’s building and grounds, said a local church has put up the display on the lawn every year since before he started with the county three decades ago.

He said the county does nothing to help with the project and that he was unaware of the issues of the constitutionality surrounding such displays.

Matt Fichter, a Dixon resident, said the church should have put the Nativity scene on its own property. By putting it in front of the courthouse, he said, “They’re wrapping it up in the power of government.

“It doesn’t belong in front of the courthouse,” he said.

Both liberal and conservative attorneys interpret court rulings similarly.

If a display is privately sponsored, attorneys advise, it should include a disclaimer saying who the sponsor is and that the government entity does not endorse or oppose the display.

If it is publicly sponsored, it should include secular symbols nearby – for instance, Santa Claus, reindeer, or a Christmas tree, the attorneys say.

The Lee County display includes neither secular symbols nor a disclaimer.

“Nativity scenes on public property and religious Christmas carols in the public schools are rapidly disappearing from American culture,” attorney Mathew Staver said on the website of Liberty Counsel, a conservative nonprofit law firm. “Unfortunately, the ACLU has used smoke and mirrors to intimidate public officials into removing Nativity scenes and Christmas carols from the public square.”

However, Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said his group does not discourage such displays. The law around Nativity scenes is “fairly well settled,” he said.

“The idea should be to enhance and permit the widest amount of speech without government picking and choosing which speech is acceptable,” Yohnka said.

Some communities have barred any displays – religious or otherwise – but the ACLU believes that rather than “shut everyone out, let everyone in,” Yohnka said.

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