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Another display for holiday at courthouse?

Group promotes separation of church and state

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

DIXON – The Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn may have some company next December.

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes the separation of church and state, plans to put up a winter solstice display next year on the courthouse lawn.

Last month, local resident Matt Fichter objected to the Nativity scene in front of the Old Lee County Courthouse at Second Street and Galena Avenue. The display, he said, amounted to a government endorsement of religion.

After a story was published by Sauk Valley Media, the foundation asked that it be allowed to put up a display.

“It is our understanding that the county has opted to allow private displays on the courthouse lawn,” the group’s attorney, Patrick Elliott, wrote in a Dec. 19 email. “Please let us know as soon as possible if this request is approved.”

That day, the county responded by email, but mistakenly addressed the message to internal email addresses, not Elliott’s. He didn’t find out until recently that the county would allow a winter solstice display.

Elliott said his group planned to arrange for a nonreligious winter solstice display in December.

“We don’t think any religious or nonreligious displays should be put on public property,” he said.

But because they are allowed in some cases, Elliott said, the foundation wants to get its message across. It has put up winter solstice displays in Streator and Arlington Heights, among other Illinois towns.

Last month, Elliott said, a number of residents contacted the foundation about Lee County’s Nativity scene, which a local church has put up for decades.

In its emailed reply to the foundation, the county said it allows private displays but needs to know the details of the display. It said the group would have to call a county official before any digging and that it would need to have the proper support under the display if it’s too heavy.

“Also, we will need to know the setback dimensions so as not to block the line of sight on the two highways [next to the courthouse],” the email said.

County Board member John Nicholson, R-Franklin Grove, who heads the board’s Properties Committee, said the county never thought it would have to set certain guidelines for the courthouse lawn.

“It’s public property,” he said. “Everyone has a right to put something there.”

The Supreme Court has addressed the issue of privately sponsored Nativity scenes, which is the type on the courthouse lawn. Liberal and conservative experts on the issue interpret the court’s rulings to mean that such displays should include signs indicating they are privately sponsored and not the work of the government entity.

Other displays also must be allowed, according to court rulings.

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