The battle over baby Jesus 

Tucking in baby Jesus

It’s only taken a year, a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and the threat of almost certain court costs and financial damages in excess of $150,000 for Custer County commissioners to finally heed the words of Thomas Jefferson from 1802, when he spoke of “building a wall of separation between church and state.” The Montana chapter of the ACLU and Custer County commissioners recently signed a consent agreement prohibiting the county from displaying its nativity scene on the lawn of the Custer County Courthouse, as it has done during the holiday season for the last six years.

The agreement, signed in September by ACLU attorney Beth Brenneman and two of the three Custer County commissioners, stipulates that the county may no longer display religious symbols on county property. However, the agreement does allow the continued display of a Ten Commandments monument donated to the county in 1968, provided that the county move it to a less prominent location on the courthouse lawn and agrees to create alongside it an “Evolution of Law” display that features the Magna Carta, the American Bill of Rights, the 17th century English Bill of Rights and certain sections of the Montana Constitution.

Custer County also agreed to pay the legal fees of Brenneman and the ACLU and to donate the nativity scene to a non-governmental entity. “This case fundamentally has not been about the nativity scene or the Ten Commandments, which are time-honored symbols of faith entitled to reverence,” says ACLU Executive Director Scott Crichton. “This case is about government. Under our Constitution, the government has no business erecting, accepting or maintaining religious monuments on public property.”

Custer County Commissioner Duane Mathison, who last year said the nativity scene would continue to be displayed on the courthouse lawn as long as he was in office, refused to sign the agreement, which only required the approval of two commissioners.

“This is a sad day for all Christians that we can no longer display the nativity scene on the courthouse lawn,” Mathison said recently at a press conference. “In recent years there has been an outcry to put Christ back in Christmas. Displaying the nativity scene is one way to carry out that message, whether on government property or not.”

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