Thanks to Mayor Michael Napolitano (D) who has tried to summon the Ghost of Controversy Past, the front lawn in front of Cranston City Hall will not have a manger scene or any religious decorations this year.
In December, 2003, then Mayor Steve Laffey (R) invited Cranston residents to place religious and seasonal decorations on the front lawn of Cranston City Hall. Mayor Laffey, then Treasurer Randy Rossi and the City of Cranston were sued.
The first displays to appear on the lawn included a menorah and a creche. Grace C. Osediacz, a citizen of Cranston and the plaintiff in this matter (“Plaintiff”), considered the placement of these displays on the City Hall lawn to be a demonstration of support of religion by the City and its Mayor.
In 2004, citing a 1984 ruling by the US Supreme Court, US District Judge William E. Smith ruled that both religious and seasonal decorations can be displayed on the front lawn of Cranston City Hall. In December of 2004, 2005 and 2006, Mayor Steve Laffey decorated the front lawn pursuant to Judge Smith’s ruling. From the article in today’s Providence Journal:
But the judge, while finding that Laffey’s display passed constitutional muster, ruled that the mayor could not pick and choose specific displays without violating the free-speech rights of the city’s residents.
The decision left Laffey with two options: open the 2004 display to any and all decorations or sponsor a city-run spectacle complete with religious items and secular holiday trinkets.
Laffey went the latter route and the controversy dissipated with time.
Until this year. First term Mayor Napolitano has eschewed religious items for the front lawn at City Hall. Instead,
On Wednesday, Mayor Michael T. Napolitano, a Democrat, will switch on 50,000 white lights on the trees and bushes surrounding City Hall.
A high school choir will croon and Santa Claus will pose for photographs with children in the foyer.
The Mayor is reported to have said that it is his prerogative to do so. Presumably it is. But if so, why did he consult with the ACLU prior to making his decision? And publicly acknowledge doing so? Was he so uncomfortable with his decision and the potential public relations fallout that he wanted someone standing next to him for affirmation and a co-share of the blame? Or did he think that his “involvement” of the ACLU, which has in the past mounted legal challenges to the presence of religious items on government property, would lead an inattentive public to believe that the matter had not been settled and that he was averting controversy by seeking their counsel?
The ACLU in turn, which apparently suffers from only partial amnesia in the area of court rulings and public policy, chose not to point the Mayor towards the 2004 court ruling involving his predecessor but instead commended the decision and referred to “recognizing the importance of religious neutrality by the government”.
Can we only have religious neutrality with the complete absence of religion? District Judge Smith did not think so:
Nothing in Lynch or its progeny suggests even remotely that a holiday display, either sponsored by the City or allowed to be displayed on City property, must be sanitized of all religious content in order to be constitutional.
Yet this seems to be the goal of Mayor Napolitano who, in addition to placing only seasonal decorations at City Hall, has not yet corrected a statement by one of his spokespersons who (religious scholars, take note) is single-handedly attempting to redefine the meaning of Christmas in secular terms.
“I think this is definitely a little bit more of a sincere approach and more of a real approach to the true meaning of Christmas,” said Ann Marie Harty, a spokeswoman for the mayor.