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Atheists May File Suit Against Future Displays

December 18, 1987|NANCY RAY | Times Staff Writer

A national organization of atheists said Thursday that it may file suit to ban future religious displays in San Diego's Balboa Park.

However, attorney John Vinson of the Texas-based Society of Separationists said any legal action against the city would be postponed until early next year, "because we are just too busy right now to handle it."

San Diego city officials recently settled a Jewish Federation protest to a Christmas display by agreeing to allow a menorah to be erected in the park. The Chabad of La Jolla will erect the symbol near the El Prado fountain Sunday afternoon. An eight-scene display of the life of Jesus has been exhibited at the park's Organ Pavilion for nearly four decades.

Vinson said that compromise "only compounds the violation," as far as the atheist organization is concerned. He said that the Society would file suit against the city because the displays were religious symbols on city property and, therefore, violations of the constitution's provision for separation of church and state.

Vinson said his group was challenging similar church-state conflicts throughout the nation and had recently prevailed in Escondido, where holiday banners depicting religious scenes and messages had been replaced by city edict with secular decorations.

Following a suit filed against the city last June, the Escondido Council set restrictive standards on the wording and pictures allowed on the holiday placards. This year, only five or six banners were hung.

This year's banners "are a vast improvement," said Steve Thorne, a local spokesman for the atheist group. He complimented the "bright, lively holiday colors," which have replaced last year's religious purples and the pictures of reindeer, snowmen and candy canes rather than slogans such as, "Jesus Is The Reason For The Season" and "Christ Lives."

Thorne said the group is planning to drop its suit against Escondido if the banners conform to the new non-religious regulations and if the city is willing to pay the society's legal costs of about $2,000. The Escondido suit has not been heard yet and the city has not yet agreed to pay court costs for the society.

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