Annual disagreements over Nativity scenes give way to compromise

The annual storm of controversy that in recent years has surrounded the display of Nativity scenes on public property at Christmastime is slowly giving way to a spirit of compromise. To be sure, advocates of strict separation between church and state are still bouting in many places with those who want cr`eches on municipal grounds. ``But there is more flexibility [on everybody's part] in many communities,'' says Charles Sims, First Amendment specialist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In a number of communities, compromises have been reached which allow religious displays but officially disclaim civic sponsorship.

The ACLU has been a major force in seeking injunctions against those who would erect manger scenes and other religious symbols on nonprivate lands. Their position is that such displays entangle government with religion and appear to favor one group of churches over another -- in violation of the Constitution.

In the past two years, the US Supreme Court appeared to settle at least a major part of the issue in two cases involving Pawtucket, R.I., and Scarsdale, N.Y. Both votes, in effect, endorsed the idea of public displays as long as secular symbols of the holiday (such as Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman) appeared along with the Nativity. The votes were so close, the issue is almost certain to surface again in the high court.

``What the court didn't settle is whether cr`eches standing alone, and not part of an overall Christmas display, are constitutional,'' says Joseph L. Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But Mr. Conn also sees compromise.

For example, in Concord, N.H., city officials -- sensitive to criticism that an exclusively religious display on public property might constitute a First Amendment violation -- have erected a sign on their statehouse plaza indicating that the granting of a license for their holiday Nativity scene ``indicates neither endorsement nor support of the municipality of the views for religious beliefs of the licensees.''

A similar disclaimer appears with a public Nativity scene in Providence, R.I. In response to some pressure, the cr`eche was moved this year from the steps of the municipal building to a location across the street from City Hall.

However, despite out-of-court resolution of the cr`eche controversy in some places, other areas are in litigation:

A California court has blocked the display of an illuminated manger scene outside the City Hall of Los Angeles suburb Downey, pending further hearing.

In Denver, a group opposed to a cr`eche display at the City and County Building (supported by local money) insists the scene indicates a ``public preference for Christianity.'' They are trying to get the state Supreme Court to outlaw it.

A Chicago case is still pending over a privately funded Nativity scene on public property. A coalition of Jewish groups has opposed it on the basis it is wholly religious in nature and contains no secular symbols.

In Pawtucket, city officials were unable to buy back a cr`eche which they sold to a private committee during the national debate which ended up in the Supreme Court. They erected a smaller Nativity scene instead. In Scarsdale, village fathers voted unanimously to restore their cr`eche display on public property.

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