By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach’s Nativity scene — stationed on the front lawn of Town Hall during the holidays — could be history.
A nearby large menorah could also be banished should the town follow the request of a national organization that argues for the separation of church and state.
“We’re being pushed to remove any religious symbols from town property,” said Highland Beach Town Manager Marshall Labadie.
No decision has been made regarding what will be in front of Town Hall come the holiday season, but town officials say their options may be limited because of precedents set in previous court cases.
“It really comes down to what the commission and the community wants,” Labadie said.
The question of whether Highland Beach can have a Nativity scene on town property was raised in February when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Mayor Doug Hillman requesting that the town remove it.
“A local Highland Beach resident reported that during this past winter season the town of Highland Beach’s municipal complex had a nativity scene on the front lawn,” the nonprofit organization’s staff attorney Chris Line wrote.
Unaware that the town also had a menorah on the property at the same time, Line wrote that it is “unlawful for the town of Highland Beach to maintain, erect or host a holiday display that consists solely of a nativity scene thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing one religion.”
Reached last month, Line said his organization of 35,000 agnostics and atheists would have an issue even with the menorah on the property because the town would still be singling out specific religions and endorsing religion as opposed to non-religion.
An option for the town, he said, could be to keep the menorah and the Nativity scene but then allow all religions to have symbols on town property.
That could be a thorny issue for the town and may not be a practical option, Labadie said, in part because of space.
Line said the town would be wise to just remove the Nativity and menorah rather than trying to accommodate all religions.
“It’s much easier if the government doesn’t get involved in putting up religious displays,” he said.
Highland Beach is still studying options, but Line said the town could face legal action from his organization if it continues to have the Nativity and menorah on the lawn.
“It’s definitely an issue that could be litigated,” he said.
Labadie said the town’s Nativity scene had been lent to nearby St. Lucy Catholic Church in the past but was returned in recent years after the church purchased a new one. He said the town could consider offering the scene to the church.
He said the town could also consider modifying an agreement it has with the company that provides the menorah on a lease-to-own basis.
Highland Beach would still have a robust holiday display at Town Hall, he said, that would include lights and a decorated tree.