FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. A church can display a cross and a sign reading "Jesus is the reason for the season" in a holiday lights attraction at a Broward County park, a federal judge ruled on Nov. 19.
Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale claimed unconstitutional censorship after months of wrangling with county officials over its plans to join community displays at the Holiday Festival of Lights.
"This ruling clearly sends a message that the First Amendment protects religious speech just as it protects secular speech," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which defends religious freedoms. "Government may not, in the name of political correctness, single out the views of religious persons for discriminatory treatment."
A county policy issued in October 2002 on holiday displays discourages the use of religious symbols, including Nativity scenes and crucifixes, on county property but allows menorahs.
The annual two-month, two-mile long drive-through display draws more than 250,000 visitors to Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek. The church is willing to pay a $15,000 fee to join hundreds of other privately sponsored displays in the show, which begins today.
A county attorney rejected the church's message in April, but then approved both the cross and message in June. He withdrew permission again in August. The county issued a new policy in September allowing sponsors to pick from designs offered by the county, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in October.
Last year, under the old policy allowing sponsors to design their own displays, the church displayed a star, but at county urging switched its message from "Remember Him" to "God Bless America."
Calvary Chapel Pastor Bob Coy has said the county threatened to cancel the 11th annual event after the church insisted on its message this year.