The Green Bay Nativity Case Fizzles Out

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 8, 2008 — 4 Comments

The Religion Clause blog reports that a case involving a controversial Nativity Scene erected on city property in Green Bay, Wisconsin this past December has been dismissed by the judge.


A brief moment of religious inclusiveness in Green Bay.

“…a Wisconsin federal district court dismissed an Establishment Clause challenge to a nativity scene displayed last year on the roof of the entrance to Green Bay’s City Hall. Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment, an injunction and nominal damages. Without reaching the merits, the court concluded that plaintiffs lacked standing because “none of the relief they seek would redress the injuries they claim.” City Council had already enacted a moratorium on all displays, until a policy is worked out in the future. Also the city took down the display at issue on December 26, just hours before this lawsuit was filed. The claim for nominal damages was not sufficient by itself to create standing.”

This ruling isn’t exactly a rousing victory for Mayor Jim Schmitt. While Green Bay won’t have to pay damages, this “Christmas Wars” showdown hasn’t endeared him to the local press, and even local clergy have told him to keep city hall secular.

“Mayor Jim Schmitt has met with clergy to get their ideas on a city policy. They agreed that the city should stick with secular decorations and leave the religious displays to area churches and synagogues.”

This case has displayed the worst impulses of politicians. Enacting policy in order to “take the fight to” organizations they disagree with, inviting religious diversity to cover their tracks, and then insulting a local Wiccan organization (Circle Sanctuary) by refusing to replace a holiday display that had been vandalized. It makes one wish that Green Bay’s mayor had the same good sense as Muskego’s.

“You have to be respectful of all religions and if you start putting one display up, you have to put up displays for everybody,” Muskego Mayor John Johnson said. “If you put up a Nativity scene and then a group asks you to put up a Hanukkah display or a display for the Muslim holiday, do you tell them no? You can’t.”

While the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s suit was dismissed, they, and the Green Bay residents who filed with them, really won the larger battle. It seems very likely that Mayor Jim Schmitt and the city council will take the advice of local clergy and keep things secular this year. Avoiding future games of litigious “chicken” for the sake of proving that Green Bay is more Christian than Madison. Let’s hope this case fizzling out will be a harbinger of the larger “War on Christmas” finally losing momentum among the punditocracy.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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