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Private nativty scene in park under legal fire

December 2, 2012

Thomas More Society Defends Private Religious Speech in “North School Park,” a Traditional Public Forum

The Arlington Heights Park District as well as other city officials have received a letter of complaint for their decision to reject a Nativity scene as part of an annual holiday display held in one of the city’s parks. The letter was authored by Tom Brejcha, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Society. Brejcha’s letter recounted that the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee had submitted a timely, genuine, and fully legitimate request to include a Nativity scene, constitutionally protected as it is a privately-sponsored and privately-funded expression of religious belief, among the many other planned Christmas-themed displays in this public celebration of the holiday season in this traditional public forum, a public park.

Mr. Steven Scholten, Executive Director of Arlington Parks, had told Mr. Jim Finnegan, Chairman of INSC, that the Park Board Commissioners had decided to exclude the Nativity Scene from the Christmas holiday display, which has been celebrated at North School Park, at Eastman Street and Arlington Heights Road, each December since 1991.The exhibit, featuring over 70,000 lights and a decorated evergreen on the Park’s fountain, showcases lighted streetscape trees, and a number of “display pieces,” including Channukah dreidels. While supervised by the Park Board, the Village of Arlington Heights also participates in the installation, funding, and sponsorship of one or more of the displays.

Brejcha explained, “The constitutional obligation of government officials, including the Park Board’s Executive Director, members of the Commission, and the Mayor and Trustees of Arlington Heights, is to administer this traditional public forum without discrimination against religious speech, equally as they cannot discriminate against those who would abstain from or oppose religious expression. Thus such privately sponsored and funded religious displays in traditional public forums are constitutionally protected,” Brejcha noted. “Even the ACLU has supported the right of citizens to proclaim the joyful message signaled by Jesus Christ’s birth in the public square.”

The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based public interest law firm, has been instrumental in securing permits for the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee’s fifth annual display of a Nativity Scene depicting the birth of Jesus, to be unveiled in the Rotunda of our Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, alongside the Governor’s “holiday tree,” on Tuesday, November 27, at noon. Tomorrow morning, Saturday, November 24, Jim Finnegan and the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee will unveil their annual Nativity display on Daley Plaza in Chicago, at 11 a.m.

Thomas More Society offers free legal help to individuals and private citizen groups interested in putting up similar Nativity scenes — privately sponsored and funded — in any traditional public forum in their own town, within Illinois or elsewhere. The Thomas More Society can be reached at 312.782.1680.

Read a copy of the Arlington Heights complaint letter here.

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