Hailed by Christian groups as a victory against those who want to strip away America's religious heritage, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Green Bay, Wisc., over a Nativity scene displayed last year at the City Hall.
"The federal court gave the City of Green Bay an early Christmas present," said Mathew D. Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law.
The group Freedom From Religion Foundation had sued the city and city officials, including the mayor, after the disputed Nativity display had already been removed from city property. The Nativity scene was installed early December 2007 over an entry way into City Hall.
"Freedom From Religion Foundation is a radical organization that seeks to cleanse religion from America. The fact is that America has a rich religious history, and Nativity scene displays are consistently constitutional," Staver said. Liberty Counsel represented the city of Green Bay in the case.
Judge Writes 23-Page Decision
U.S. District Court Judge William Griesbach threw out the case for lack of jurisdiction. Since the Nativity display had already been removed and the city has taken steps to ban further displays in the future, the judge ruled there was no basis for the case.
Judge Griesbach said that the FFRF does not have standing to bring the claims, which he described as "so fleeting and slight that they do not warrant pursuing in federal court."
In a 23-page decision, the judge also noted that there is "a strong incentive for budget-conscious local governments to accede to demands from groups like the plaintiffs that government buildings and other property be cleansed of all signs and symbols of the country's religious heritage."
High Court Upheld Gov't-Sponsored Nativity Scenes
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld government-sponsored Nativity scenes when they are displayed in the context of other symbols of the Christmas holiday, including having such things like a Santa Claus, a reindeer, or a Christmas tree.
The City of Green Bay displayed all those elements and even included wreaths with ribbon and lit candles.
Taku Ronsman, one of the 14 individuals who sued along with the FFRF said she was sad the incident happened, but agreed her side won when the city removed the Nativity scene.
"That's a warning that if they do it again, there'll be a case," she said. "I can live with that."
City Council President Chad Fradett disagrees about which side won. He says the city council had already decided to vote in a moratorium on such displays. The display came down because Christmas was over.
"We got to celebrate Christmas and defend other communities around us, and we got to take on some atheists," he said. "We actually won. Unfortunately nothing was decided on the Constitutional issue, just on mootness."
The City Council is working to develop a policy over city holiday displays. There has been a strong show of support by religious leaders and citizens for the city to also include religious displays on city property during the holidays.
Sources: Liberty Council, Green Bay Press-Gazette