DOWNEY — A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that the group will go to court to prevent city officials from displaying a donated Nativity scene on City Hall property.
ACLU lawyer Carol Sobel said in an interview that the ACLU will seek a temporary restraining order in Los Angeles Superior Court today because under the state Constitution, "government cannot lend its financial or symbolic endorsement to any religion."
She said that it does not matter whether the city pays for the display, as originally intended, or if the display is donated by residents.
City Atty. Carl Newton said Wednesday that the planned display does not violate state law. He cited a Dec. 6 Los Angeles Superior Court decision that allowed an unlit menorah to be displayed in Los Angeles City Hall.
Lit on Steps Outside
In that case, Judge Irving Shimir would not allow the menorah to be lit inside City Hall, as originally planned, but had no objections to the menorah being lit on steps outside City Hall to mark Hanukkah. The ACLU is seeking another court hearing to prevent the City of Los Angeles from using the borrowed menorah for any religious purpose.
"The simple display of some religious artifact is not a violation of the Constitution," Newton said in an interview.
Other city officials and residents who planned to pay for the Nativity scene were critical of the ACLU.
"They're just trouble makers with nothing better to do. The ACLU is in for a fight on this one," said Councilman Robert Cormack.
"It seems that the ACLU practices the ultimate in censorship. They want us to censor Christ out of Christmas," resident Marilyn Davis said Tuesday at a City Council meeting. Davis, who is collecting money to purchase the Nativity scene, said she has already received pledges for more than $1,000.
On Oct. 22, the council approved purchasing a $3,250 Nativity scene for a Christmas display on City Hall property to replace an old one that was discarded after Christmas, 1983. But the ACLU notified the city in a letter that it would file a lawsuit against the city to prevent the purchase.
On Tuesday, the council unanimously rescinded the Nativity scene purchase, deciding, instead, to allow a group of residents to pay for the Nativity set to be displayed on City Hall property.
"I'm really thrilled to learn that people in Downey are so concerned about celebrating Christmas properly that they're willing to dig down in their own pockets and make this sort of contribution," Cormack said at the council meeting.
Ban on Lighting Windows
In a Dec. 2 letter to the council, ACLU lawyer Sobel cited a 1978 state Supreme Court decision that upheld a ban on lighting widows of the Los Angeles City Hall tower in the form of a cross at Christmas.
In that decision, the court rejected claims that the display, which had been done for 30 years, was an interfaith gesture of good will to all mankind. Instead, said Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird in a concurring opinion, the "church-like appearance" of City Hall would be an impermissible entanglement of government and religion.
In defending their actions, Downey officials cited a March, 1984, U.S. Supreme Court decision that found cities may include Nativity scenes in their Christmas displays without violating the First Amendment ban on any official establishment of religion.
In that decision, the court approved the practice of Pawtucket, R.I., which for 40 years has included life-sized figures of Jesus, Joseph and Mary alongside a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus house in its annual holiday display.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger found that the Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state, but "mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any."
Privately Owned Land
In the Pawtucket case, the city purchased the Nativity scene for $1,365 for display on privately owned land in Pawtucket's downtown shopping district. The Supreme Court decision came after the ACLU had persuaded lower federal courts that the city's official sponsorship of the Nativity scene was unconstitutional.
In the Downey City Council's Oct. 22 decision to approve purchase of the Nativity scene, James Santangelo, Robert Cormack and Randall Barb voted in favor, with Diane Boggs and Bob Davila abstaining. Tuesday's vote to rescind the purchase and accept a donated Nativity scene was approved by all council members, with the exception of Barb, who was absent.
The almost life-size 20-piece Nativity scene that the residents now intend to pay for is stored in crates in a first-floor City Hall office, said Alta Duke, city social services manager.
The scene, of "simulated hand-carved wood," includes three wise men, two angels, a kneeling shepherd boy, a manger, lambs, cows and a donkey, Joseph, Mary and a baby Jesus, Duke said. She said it would be placed somewhere on City Hall grounds but an exact location had not been determined.
Downey officials said the Nativity scene probably would be lighted, but that they did not know whether public or private funds would pay for electricity.
ACLU lawyer Sobel, however, said that the city cannot spend "one red cent" of public funds to light the display.