Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus have no business posing in a public park â€” 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 â€” twice â€” 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.”