Press Release - Courthouse Victory

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Pennsylvania County Agrees To Remove Religious
Symbols From Courthouse Lawn
Luzerne County Courthouse Display Of Nativity Scene And Menorah Violated
Constitution, Civil Liberties Groups Advised
December 17, 2009

Mary Catherine Roper, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 215-592-1513 x116
Joe Conn, Americans United, 202-466-3234

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: http://www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/northeastpennsylvaniafreet.htm