Erecting religious symbols on public property can be a challenge, a challenge that The Catholic League has met when it recently erected a life-size nativity scene in Central Park, on a piece of public property in front of the Plaza Hotel, between 58th and 59th Street on 5th Avenue.
“We received a permit from the New York City Parks Department, as we have for decades,” said Catholic League president Bill Donahue. “There are no Santa Clauses, reindeers, Jack Frosts, or any other secular symbols surrounding our religious display. We don’t need to have them. Why? Because Central Park is a public forum, a place that is open to all ideas, concerts, artistic exhibitions, and the like. So the government cannot stop us from erecting our crèche.”
So why do some say that religious symbols cannot be displayed on public property unless they are accompanied by secular symbols? “They would not be correct if they were referring to a public forum, but they would be correct if they were referring to a swatch of public land near a municipal building, such as city hall,” said Donahue. “The difference there is that it could be argued that the proximity of the religious symbols near a municipal entity might be interpreted as government sanction of religion. That argument cannot reasonably be made if the land is a public forum. Practicing Christians, Jews, and others, need to understand the difference so as to avoid unnecessary problems.”
“Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said several years ago that the high court has failed the public by not making clear what is permissible under the Constitution when it comes to religious expression. He was right then, and nothing has happened subsequently to invalidate his observation.”