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Op-Ed: Keep Nativities on Private Land (Olean Times Herald)

By John A. Curr III — The holiday season should be a time of fellowship, warmth and joy. We shouldn’t spoil the season by bickering over religious symbols, which is why Mayor David Carucci’s decision to allow a private group to place a Nativity scene on the west lawn of the Olean Municipal Building is regrettable. It has unnecessarily fractured the community during a cheerful time – inciting a controversy that neither serves the public good nor celebrates religious faith.

The Nativity scene is a time-honored and beautiful celebration of faith. It should be lovingly displayed in churches and homes, not on the grounds of municipal buildings or in public parks where its presence provokes dispute and makes those who aren’t Christian feel unwelcome.

Responding to the furor, Mayor Carucci agreed to move the crèche across the street to Lincoln Park, where Santa already holds court. The move requires the Common Council to suspend a 1995 law banning private displays in public parks, which was enacted, ironically, to prevent controversies over religious displays on public property.

They had it right in 1995.

Olean isn’t the only municipality to struggle with this issue. Similar disputes have landed in court, producing a complex series of case law.

The U.S. Supreme Court twice ruled on the constitutionality of Nativity displays on public property during the 1980s. In 1984, the court held that the city of Pawtucket, R.I. did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by erecting a crèche in a holiday display that include non-religious holiday symbols. Five years later, the court ruled that a crèche displayed on its own represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity.

These decisions suggest that the religious message of a crèche on public property must be diluted to satisfy constitutional standards, which should be no comfort for those who support displaying a Nativity scene on public grounds in Olean.

Placing the crèche in Lincoln Park is unwise even if it passes constitutional scrutiny. The Establishment Clause rests upon the premise that religious freedom is best preserved by ensuring that government is neutral in religious affairs. History teaches that government endorsement of a particular religion breeds divisiveness and resentment.

We live in one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, and Americans are among the most devout observers of their faiths. This tranquility is endangered when government appears to endorse a particular religion. Religious freedom thrives when the government stays out of religion.

Surely, Santa doesn’t require government assistance to evoke holiday cheer in Lincoln Park. Accordingly, it would be best for the city of Olean to move the Nativity scene to private property, where it could be proudly and prominently displayed.

Mr. Curr is executive director of the Western Regional Office of the New York Civil Liberties Union in Buffalo.

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