The conflict was sparked last December when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained about a nativity scene the town has displayed in various locations for decades. In response to the complaint, city leaders have agreed to ensure that the display is accompanied by secular symbols of the season. However, the Oregon branch of the ACLU has now gotten involved and is claiming that, even if the display follows First Amendment guidelines set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court, it still violates the Oregon Constitution because it is city-owned.
Not so, say lawyers from the Pacific Justice Institute. PJI Staff Attorney Matthew McReynolds is sending a letter to Prineville city leaders today, offering to defend the city free of charge if the ACLU files suit. The letter quotes Article I, Section 5 of the Oregon Constitution, which merely forbids giving public money to religious or “theological institutions.” There is no indication, McReynolds noted, that this provision somehow forbids a traditional acknowledgement of Christmas, and it seems more likely the provision would be interpreted consistently with the First Amendment, under which the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically approved city-owned nativity scenes.
Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, commented, “Every year, the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation seem to attack Christmas more fiercely, but starting this early has to be a record for them. Since we believe their legal position is deeply flawed, we are committed to doing everything necessary to defend this time-honored tradition.”
The City Council deadlocked late last month, with one member absent, on whether to further modify its display to appease the ACLU and FFRF. Some council members suggested replacing “Christmas” with “holiday,” but the ACLU indicated it would not be satisfied with that change. The Council is scheduled to take up the issue again at a public meeting tonight.