Pictured in Times Leader - 12/18

December 18, 2009

Loss of holiday display sparks backlash

By Jennifer Learn-Andes jandes@timesleader.com
Luzerne County Reporter

Former Luzerne County commissioner Frank Trinisewski said he will resort to legal action against the county if a Nativity scene and menorah are not returned to the courthouse lawn.

Political activist Gene Stilp is also organizing a live Nativity scene – complete with a baby Jesus – arguing that people have a First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs.

County officials decided to remove the Nativity scene and menorah from the courthouse lawn Wednesday night because the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State threatened to get a restraining order.

The organizations argued the display violated the constitutional separation of church and state. County Solicitor Vito DeLuca said officials decided to comply with the removal request, at least this year, to avoid the time and expense of fighting litigation amidst other pressing issues, including the county’s budget crisis.

Trinisewski said he and former commissioners Frank Crossin Jr. and Jim Phillips unanimously passed a resolution in the 1980s to place a Nativity scene, menorah and symbols of any other interested religious groups on the lawn.

He said the law required the courthouse lawn display to be viewed in its entirety, and the inclusion of secular objects, such as a reindeer, meant there was no preference toward one particular religion.

But Americans United attorney Richard Katskee in Washington, D.C., said the legal interpretation is not that simple.

If the county decides to allow a display on the lawn, county officials must sincerely issue an open invitation to anyone who wants to put something on the lawn without filtering the content, Katskee said.

This requirement means commissioners may end up with displays they don’t like and a “lawn littered with all kinds of things,” he said.

Seasonal displays on public property cannot show preference to any religion, he said. Katskee said Luzerne County’s Nativity stood by itself and was highlighted with a spotlight. The display did not include secular objects, other than a snowman that was “kind of hidden behind a tree,” he said.

The county also used public employees to erect the Nativity and menorah and using publicly funded lighting to illuminate the Nativity – also not allowed, he said.

Katskee said the separation clause was intended to “respect everybody’s faith” and make sure nobody feels that their government shows preference for any religion.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, praised the county for its decision to remove the objects in a press release.

“I expect to see religious symbols at houses of worship, not government buildings that serve Americans of all faiths and none,” Lynn said.

County minority Commissioner Stephen A. Urban was upset with the removal decision, saying he learned about it through a news article.

Urban said the county has received at least one offer for free legal representation to defend a lawsuit over the displays. He said the courthouse has been open for displays and demonstrations by any group.

“This courthouse belongs to the people of this county, not the ACLU,” Urban said. “The ACLU can come in and put a display out if they want.”

Urban said he believes volunteers would be willing to erect the Nativity and menorah and reimburse the county for lighting so that no public dollars are involved.

Trinisewski said he has consulted with two lawyers who would represent him as a taxpayer to challenge the county’s removal. He said has tried to stay out of the limelight but can’t ignore this matter.

“I’m appalled and very upset,” Trinisewski said.

Stilp said a live Nativity would allow people to express their views, and he is seeking volunteers and tame farm animals to carry out the plan on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights next week.

Choirs are also invited, and he wants to add three “wise women” for a modern flair. He said people of all faiths are invited and asks interested volunteers to contact him at 717-829-5600.

“I think this is what the county needs, something to pick up its spirits,” Stilp said.