Constitutional Law

'Tis the season for lawsuits over holiday displays

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Festivus pole displayed in Dec. 2012
in Deerfield Beach, Florida. File photo
courtesy of Chaz Stevens.

A Florida city began litigating in February over the expected holiday display extravaganza at the Plantation Acres home of Mark and Kathy Hyatt, who were featured last year in The Great Christmas Light Fight but lost the $50,000 contest to a family in Georgia.

Nonetheless, the case is still ongoing and, without a final court order (a hearing on a motion to dismiss is scheduled in March 2015), the Hyatts were free to continue with their display this year, according to the National Law Journal (sub. req.) and the Sun Sentinel (sub. req.).

‘Tis the season for litigation over holiday decorations, but much of the annual contention this year has either been resolved by out-of-court negotiation or, as in the Hyatts’ case, is still ongoing.

Nativity scenes in or outside courthouses, state capitals and other public buildings are an annual subject of holiday-season discord, but they have been resolved in a number of jurisdictions by allowing those with differing religious views to put up their own displays. This year, a group of Satanists say they have received permission to install a religious display at the Michigan state capital next to a planned Nativity scene, reports. A photograph of the planned Satanist display includes a red snake coiled around a patriarchal cross and a pentagram emblazoned with the phrase “The Greatest Gift is Knowledge.”

Other governmental bodies are precluding dispute by banning all religious holiday displays at public buildings. They include the city of Deerfield Beach, Florida, which in 2012 allowed atheist Chaz Stevens to install a Festivus pole made of beer cans next to a traditional nativity scene. Last year, after the local ban, Stevens took his Festivus pole to the state capitol building and he has done so again this year.

“It’s supposed to be ridiculous, it’s supposed to be a blight. It’s supposed to be an eyesore. It’s supposed to troll you. It’s supposed to anger a lot of you. That’s what I did. I did it on purpose like that,” Stevens told the New York Daily News. “As I said last year, if you can think of a better idea, something that’s more ridiculous, I’m open to that.”

Stevens has also won permission to give a Satanic invocation before an upcoming Lake Worth, Florida, government meeting and is working on a plan to do the same at meetings in other cities around the state, reports the Pulp blog of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. (However, Lake Worth subsequently informed Stevens that starting in January, the city would cease to have invocations.)

Civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have backed Stevens and other opponents of traditional religious displays, and constitutional law is now understood by many to require that diverse groups be given a chance to participate in December public decorations if any religious view is expressed.

However, lawyers and legal groups have also supported a more restrictive interpretation of the law, and the ACLU of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday over an annual Nativity scene that has gone largely unchallenged for 50 years on the lawn of the Franklin County courthouse in Brooksville.

“We feel the lawsuit violates our constitutional rights, not to be able to put it up, because of freedom of expression and freedom of religion,” present Tom Wilson, president of the Franklin County commissioners told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. He said the county would be willing to permit other displays, too, provided they are tasteful.

Senior counsel Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society represents the county. “It’s not unconstitutional for a private group of people to put up a Nativity scene when other groups are able to put up displays other times of the year,” he told the Indianapolis Star. “When a space is open like that for the use of the people, you can’t tell the religious folks that they can’t put up a religious message.”

A scheduled Friday court hearing on a motion for an injunction banning the Nativity scene did not result in any immediate ruling.

In Texas, a Nativity scene was unveiled at the state capitol Monday with the support of the governor-elect and current state attorney general, Greg Abbott, the Express News (sub. req.) reports.

A private group, which includes assistant attorney general Joseph Behnke, a lawmaker and the Thomas More Society sponsored the creche.

“The primary purpose is really just the reason for the season: to keep Christ in Christmas,” Behnke told the newspaper, explaining that he is acting as a private citizen concerning the state capitol display.

Related coverage: (Dec. 2013): “‘Tis the season for holiday-display litigation; will law firm-funded nativity scene spark discord?” “Nativity scene on courthouse lawn has disclaimer; lawyer’s family sponsors the display”

Breaking Israel News: “Church-State Debate Still Rages, but Public Hanukkah Menorahs Gain Wider Acceptance”

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