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Syracuse Can Keep Nativity Scene

March 9, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today let Syracuse, N.Y., continue sponsoring the annual display of a Christmas Nativity scene in a public park.

The court, without comment, turned away a woman’s argument that the display amounts to government endorsement of religion even though the city also allows a privately owned menorah to be displayed in another public park.

At issue was what the nation’s highest court previously has said is the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

Carol A. Elewski, a self-described atheist, asked a federal judge in 1995 to bar Syracuse from sponsoring the Nativity scene, which depicts the Biblical version of the birth of Jesus. It includes a banner proclaiming, ``Gloria in Excelsis Deo.″

The judge ruled against her, saying there was no evidence the scene in front of a 50-foot Christmas tree was intended to convey a religious message.

U.S. District Judge Frederick Scullin Jr. noted that a display in a nearby park included a Jewish menorah, a candelabra used during the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, as well as non-religious symbols _ lights, reindeer and a snowman. The Nativity scene ``is not dominant in the city’s overall holiday decorations,″ he said.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying that because the Nativity scene was part of a larger seasonal display, the city’s sponsorship did not endorse Christianity.

In the appeal acted on today, Elewski’s lawyers said courts should focus on the Nativity scene’s immediate surroundings, ``not displays spread over an entire urban area.″

The Supreme Court in 1984 ruled that Pawtuckett, R.I., did not violate the required separation of church and state when it included a Nativity scene among the decorations annually displayed in a public park.

In 1989, however, the court struck down the display of a Nativity scene standing alone inside a county courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Elewski’s lawyers also noted that she had moved to Mobile, Ala., before the 2nd Circuit court ruled. If the justices believe she lacked standing to maintain her lawsuit, the appeals court’s ruling should be set aside, Elewski’s lawyers said.

The city’s lawyers urged the justices to reject Elewski’s appeal. ``This court should not indulge requests to pull out its tape measure each time a municipality sets up a holiday display,″ they said.

They noted that Elewski had not told the 2nd Circuit court she had permanently moved to Alabama, and therefore she should not be allowed to argue now that her case was moot.

The case is Elewski vs. Syracuse, 97-1103.

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