NEWARK, N.J. A federal judge says Wall Township can again erect its December holiday display, but urges the Monmouth County municipality to make some changes to put the display in "safer constitutional waters."
U.S. District Judge Alfred M. Wolin on June 23 dismissed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union contending that the display was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government.
Wolin said the case was a close call but that he was able to decide it without a trial, basing his decision on pictures of the display and written briefs.
He noted, however, that future litigation could be avoided if the township added an additional "secular sculptural element" and changed a sign to "Seasons Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas Happy Hanukkah."
The case is the latest clash in New Jersey over the First Amendment mandate for separation of church and state, an issue that the ACLU believes has brought conflicting opinions from federal appellate courts in a five-year legal dispute over Jersey City's winter holiday display.
Jersey City and Wall both use public funds to maintain and erect the displays in front of their respective city halls. Both towns use that space for a variety of displays throughout the year, in honor of religious and secular holidays.
The ACLU said the Wall display was "substantially similar" to a Jersey City display that was found to be not secular enough, but Wall disagreed and got legal help from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Becket Fund is a public interest law firm in Washington that represented Jersey City in its successful fight to retain its holiday display in front of City Hall.
Wall Committeeman Michael D. Fitzgerald, who was mayor last year, said the Township Committee would consider the judge's suggestions.
"It's an appropriate display that celebrates heritage and other holidays, not just Christmas, as the ACLU wanted to couch it," said Fitzgerald, whose sprawling township of 24,000 comprises suburban housing and farms.
The ACLU had no immediate comment, said legal director Lenora M. Lapidus.
In addition to a créche, with figures depicting the birth of Jesus in the manger, and menorah, a symbol of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Wall display last year featured four banners with candy canes, a lighted Christmas tree, two large poinsettias, and a sign stating that "through this and other displays and events through the year, Wall Township is pleased to celebrate our American cultural traditions, as well as our legacy of diversity of freedom," the Becket Fund said.
The ACLU claimed, among other things, that at night "only the tree, the menorah and the créche are lighted," eliminating secular symbols such as banners and planting.
Wolin disagreed, saying the banners are at least partly illuminated at night and that the planned addition of a sleigh and reindeer would also be lighted.
Although he dismissed the ACLU lawsuit, Wolin said the organization could ask him to revisit the issue if Wall should depart from prior displays in such a way that endorses religion.