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Federal Agency Rapped for Decision to Use Government Funds to Sponsor Nativity Creche on Public Park

A National Park Service decision to use government funds to sponsor a Nativity creche, on public park land, was criticized today by three national Jewish civil rights organizations.

The American Jewish Congress asserted the plan violated court orders. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith challenged the federal agency’s claim it was constitutional for it to set up a Nativity scene near the White House.

Dr. Robert Gordis, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said the Committee planned to bring a brief before the Supreme Court, signed by it and the National Council of Churches, to challenge “the display of religious symbols on public property.”

CITES VIOLATION OF FEDERAL COURT RULINGS

Theodore Mann, AJCongress president, in a letter to Interior Secretary William Clark, said the decision violated federal Court of Appeals rulings in 1970 and 1977 barring the use of government funds for that purpose.

He said the creche is to be displayed as part of an annual Christmas Pageant for Peace in Washington. Nativity scenes have been included in previous pageants but paid for by private funds, he said.

Mann wrote that the Park Service rejected an offer from a private group to pay for the creche, deciding to use public funds, relying on a Supreme Court decision earlier this year in “Lynch v. Donnelly” which approved public funding for a creche on private property in Pawtucket, R.I.

Declaring that the decision reflected “an affirmative and unseemly desire on the part of the Park Service to identify itself with a particular religion,” Mann said the service was “ignoring an outstanding court order” in the belief that that order had been superseded by “a subsequent court decision.”

Mann declared “we do not believe it is the business of government to sponsor any religious display — be it a creche, menorah, or some other symbol.”

Kenneth Bialkin, ADL chairman, said the Park Service decision showed “a lack of sensitivity for the feelings of non-Christians and also violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishment of a religion.”

Bialkin said the Park Service was “ill advised” to base its decision on the Pawtucket ruling last March, adding that the Supreme Court has before it another Nativity case in Scarsdale, N.Y. involving a privately sponsored display on public property, and that the Park Service “should at least have waited” until the entire issue was constitutionally clarified.

Bialkin said the ADL was seeking a meeting with Clark to ask that the Nativity scene decision be suspended for this Christmas to allow the Supreme Court to give its decision on the current case.

Bialkin also cited the federal appeals court ruling ordering the Park Service not to include a Nativity scene in government sponsored holiday displays.

CITES LOSS OF RESOLVE BY NATIONAL GOVERNMENT

Gordis said the Park Service decision “shows how quickly we are experiencing the effects of the lack of resolve by the national government to adhere to a prohibition on the use of religious symbols on public property.”

He said that “to use the Pawtucket decision,” which concerned a special situation at a local level as “an excuse” for an act of the federal government “denies the proper role of the White House as a place where any divisive activity, especially in the field of religion, should be absolutely prohibited.”

Gordis added “we are attempting to meet on an interreligious basis with high government officials to seek their support to reduce the possibility that, during the Chanukah-Christmas season, acts on their part might bring about interreligious conflicts.”

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