The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: (202) 466-3234,Joe Conn,Rob Boston,Sandhya Bathija

Pennsylvania County Agrees to Remove Religious Symbols From Courthouse Lawn

Luzerne County Courthouse Display of Nativity Scene and Menorah Violated Constitution, Civil Liberties Groups Advised


The Luzerne County Commissioners have agreed to remove two separate
religious displays - a creche and a menorah - from the lawn of the
Luzerne County Courthouse after receiving a letter from Americans
United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil
Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

In the Dec. 11 letter, the two civil liberties groups informed the
county that the displays are an unconstitutional government endorsement
of religion.

"The reason the law forbids government endorsement of religion is
because, in the words of Justice O'Connor, 'endorsement sends a message
to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the
political community, and an accompanying message to adherent that they
are insiders, favored members of the political community,'" said Mary
Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The
courthouse - the symbol of the law in Luzerne County - is an especially
important place to respect the diversity of beliefs in our community."

Added the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director,
"I expect to see religious symbols at houses of worship, not government
buildings that serve Americans of all faiths and none. I am pleased
that the Luzerne County Commissioners realized that these displays
violated the Constitution and took action to remove them."

The creche and menorah are owned and maintained by Luzerne County.
The civil liberties groups were alerted to the presence of the
religious emblems by local members of the Northeast Pennsylvania (NEPA)
Freethought Society, including Justin Vacula and Rodney Collins.

"I'm happy the Luzerne County Courthouse will be taking down its
religious displays and will no longer communicate a message of
supporting religion to every person passing the courthouse," said
Vacula. "The Luzerne County Courthouse is now a place for everyone."

The law on public displays is clear, according to the letter sent to
the Luzerne County Commissioners on Dec. 11. A government entity may
only erect religious symbols if they are part of a broader secular
display. The religious elements cannot stand alone, as they do in this
case. Alternatively, the government may also declare a space an open
public forum, where any individual or group is welcome to put up a

NEPA Freethought Society is represented by Roper and Witold Walczak
of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Ayesha N. Khan and Richard B. Katskee
of Americans United.

More information about the issue, including photos and a copy of the December 11 letter, is available at:

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.