Despite a lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Custer County has refused to remove a nativity scene displayed on the Custer County courthouse lawn beside a large tablet engraved with the Ten Commandments.
The suit, filed in state district court, seeks a declaratory judgment that the display is unconstitutional because it violates the guarantee of separation of church and state in both the Montana and U.S. constitutions.
“As you can imagine, this kind of display gives some people the message that they are outsiders if they do not approve of this particular religious symbol,” says Brigitte Anderson, board president of the Montana chapter of the ACLU. “It’s plainly a violation of the guarantee of separation of church and state when the government displays, and thereby endorses, religious symbols.”
Custer County Commissioner Duane Matheson was recently quoted as saying that as long as he is on the commission, the nativity scene will remain on the lawn throughout the month of December. Neither Matheson nor fellow Commissioner Dan Connors could be reached for further comment.
Custer County Attorney Gary Bunke and Commissioner Janet Kelly both refused to comment on the suit or on the appropriateness of the religious symbols, although Kelly did say that the issue will in all likelihood be discussed during their regular meeting next week.
According to Anderson, Custer County has been displaying a nativity scene and the Ten Commandments for at least six years now, but only decided to file suit this year after their office received numerous complaints from their members. She says the case, the first of its kind filed by the ACLU in Montana, isn’t expected to be heard until sometime this spring.
The unconstitutionality of certain holiday religious displays on public property has been established in other court cases throughout the nation, most notably, in a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court, Allegheny County v. ACLU. In that ruling, which involved two recurring religious displays in the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, the high court ruled that communities that choose to put up holiday decorations must create a display that does not send the message of endorsing one particular religion to the exclusion of others.
“The issue isn’t the nativity scene as such. It’s not the Ten Command-ments as such, but government endorsing a particular religion and thereby telling people of other denominations that their religions are second rate,” Anderson says. “Religion has always flourished in greater purity, as James Madison said, without the aid of government.”