ACLU Threatens Florida City Over Nativity Display

Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus have no business posing in a public park — even if they’re accompanied by a Hanukkah menorah.

“Inappropriate” is the word the Broward chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union uses to describe the holiday display planned for Liberty Tree Park in Plantation, Florida.

It’s like Christmas in July, with all the traditional trimmings: squabbles over religious displays in super-sensitive South Florida.

The ACLU, in a letter to city officials, warned that displaying a Nativity scene and menorah violates the separation of church and state. The problem, the rights group said, is that the city is advocating for two religions while ignoring all the others.

“We feel it’s a violation of the First Amendment and an endorsement of religion,” said the ACLU’s Barry Butin. “If they were really neutral and didn’t favor one over the other, they’d have a more inclusive display: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist.”

The ACLU has already warned Plantation — twice — against setting up religious displays. It was acting on a complaint from an unidentified board member who doesn’t live in Plantation but photographed the creche and menorah one Christmastime.

“We trust that the city will uphold religious freedom and refrain from any further displays on city property,” Broward chapter president Brad Koogler wrote last month.

The group’s original letter, in March, was met with a terse two-sentence reply. Mayor Diane Veltri Bendekovic simply said the city would “take it under advisement.”

In deciding to display both Christian and Jewish symbols, Plantation relied on a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said cities can exhibit religious elements if they don’t endorse one faith over another.

However, Butin said, “That doesn’t mean we can’t advocate for a change.”

Activist Len Torres, 83, who has successfully campaigned for Nativity scenes at privately owned malls, wants Plantation to vigorously defend its right to show off the Baby Jesus and His family on public property.

“It’s not inappropriate because this country is 80 percent Christian and it’s a recognition of Christianity and recognition of Jesus’ birthday,” he said.

Torres isn’t far off. A 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 78.4 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian.

Rabbi Sheldon Harr of Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation said the city should just spare itself the trouble by staying out of the religious display business altogether.

“Why create the havoc?” he said. “Why create the division within the community?”

Many South Florida cities avoid the annual Christmas controversy by shunning religious displays. Others keep the tradition, but couple Santa and secular to appease different faiths.

Boca Raton has a hands-off policy when it comes to religion but allows residents to erect such items in Sanborn Square, a free speech park. Davie, Delray Beach, Hollywood, Lighthouse Point and Tamarac all set up various combinations of mangers, Christmas trees and menorahs. Dreidels and Nutcrackers also pop up in holiday decorations.

Plantation faces a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma.

“If we agree to put the Nativity scene out there, we are in danger of a lengthy lawsuit,” said perplexed City Councilman Bob Levy. “If we don’t put it out there, we unfortunately are turning our backs on a number of citizens who would like it there.”

Said City Attorney Don Lunny: “No real decision has been made yet.”

As reported by the

Toronto Schools Snub Christmas

Christmas seems to be taking a back seat in Canadian schools where Jewish and Muslim prayer and worship services are accommodated. Parents are ticked:

Some York Region parents are outraged that Christmas concerts and some Halloween activities are banned from one of their schools while a Friday prayer session for Muslim students continues to flourish.

Muslim students at Mackenzie Glen Public School in Vaughan, Ont., like their counterparts at Valley Park Middle School in North York, Ont., have been worshipping with an imam every Friday from November to March in their schools.

And Jewish students at Rockford Public School in Toronto are provided a portable that acts as a synagogue, where they can worship, some angry parents said.

“They can use the portable as a synagogue any day of the week,” a school official, who didn’t want his name used, said. “They (Jewish students) were even given a key to the school to use the bathroom.”

Officials of the Toronto district school board weren’t available Wednesday to comment on the Jewish prayer service.

The worker said he was scolded for bringing up the issue with supervisors.

“I bitched about it I was told to keep my mouth shut,” the man said. “Why does this group get free perks, and all other religions have to pay for permits and rental space?”

One parent, who has three children attending Mackenzie Glen, said Canadian values and culture are being eroded.

“The Lord’s Prayer and Christmas concerts as we know them are gone,” the York resident said. “The word Jesus seems to be forbidden as the Muslim prayers goes on every Friday.”

The resident said he has a business in the area and didn’t want his name released for fear of repercussions.

Ross Virgo of York region district school board said six of his schools accommodate Muslim prayer services and students range from three to four in some schools to more than 100 in others.

“All our schools would permit students to take time off for prayer,” Virgo said. “Many students leave school for prayer services and some don’t come back.”

He said Christmas concerts are now called holiday concerts and feature seasonal songs of many cultures.

“The tradition and values of many cultures are respected,” Virgo said. “We respect the culture and traditions of other countries.”

The practice of Muslim students praying in the cafeteria at Valley Park has sparked outrage from parents, who claim public school should be secular and not be involved in religion.

Hindu groups have already said they will protest the religious services and want non-Halal meat products for their children.

Farhan Khokhar of Amidyya Muslim Mosque in Vaughan said members of his sect are allowed to pray in schools on Friday as well, but after students of the major Muslim sects finish their prayers.

“Our students pray separately,” Khokhar said. “This is not an issue for us because there are a number of schools across the city where our students can pray.”