The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, charging that the National Park Service's plan to include a nativity scene in the government's Christmas pageant on the Ellipse is illegal and "insensitive to non-Christians," yesterday asked that the display be banned.
Kenneth J. Bialkin, national chairman for the ADL, said in a two-page letter to Interior Secretary William P. Clark that reinstating the nativity scene display after 11 years is "ill-advised" because of a case pending before the Supreme Court. Bialkin asked to meet with Clark over the issue.
The National Park Service, citing a recent Supreme Court ruling and pressure from a McLean-based citizens lobby group, last week announced it will include a nativity scene in the Christmas Pageant of Peace near the White House.
A nativity scene was banned from the display 11 years ago after a D.C. appeals court ruling held it to be a violation of the constitutional doctrine separating church and state.
Rusty Brashear, spokesman for Clark, said the ADL letter would be forwarded to government lawyers for comment, "unless it is determined there is a certain urgency," in which case it will go directly to Clark. "But, I can't say until we receive the letter," Brashear said.
Bialkin wrote that the government should not base its decision allowing the nativity scene on a March ruling by the Supreme Court in which it was held that a publicly sponsored creche displayed on private property was not an unconstitutional violation of separation of church and state.
The B'nai B'rith leader said the Supreme Court has before it another nativity case, this one involving a privately sponsored display on public property -- a situation he said more nearly reflects the situation at the annual Christmas Pageant of Peace. The Park Service, Bialkin said, "should have at least waited until the entire nativity scene issue is clarified by the Supreme Court."
The Supreme Court ruled in a Rhode Island case in March that a municipally sponsored nativity scene was a secular symbol, such as a Christmas tree, and therefore did not violate the mandate separating church and state. That decision effectively overturned a 1973 decision by a U.S. District Court of Appeals that prohibited the Park Service from including a nativity display as part of the official pageant.
Citizens for God and Country of McLean, which states that America is a "Christian nation" and that "atheists should go their own way," had lobbied the Park Service that the ban was improper. After the March ruling the Park Service reconsidered and, on the advice of its lawyers, agreed to include the creche in its display.
Bialkin said that during the years when the government did not sponsor a nativity display, "the sky didn't fall and the country got along pretty well and religion hasn't gone out of business, and there hasn't been any perceptible change in the morality of the world."
The American Civil Liberties Union also has denounced the Park Service's decision. "It seemed to me clear that when the Supreme Court decided the Pawtucket (R.I.) case last term, they were letting a genie out of the bottle, and it's going to be hard to get it back in the bottle again," said Burt Neuborne, national legal director for the ACLU.