- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

A Florida city placed two angels on the front lawn of City Hall despite complaints from an atheist organization over its use of religious Christmas decorations.
Wildwood City Council unanimously voted Nov. 25 to display the angels after Greg McDowell, the Florida director of American Atheists, threatened legal action in a Nov. 13 letter to Mayor Ed Wolf if the central Florida city used the Christian symbols as decorations.
"Last year, while driving through Wildwood, I noticed that along with other ornamental displays, your beautiful, new City Hall had angels outside on the lawn," Mr. McDowell said. "Angels are without question a religious symbol, and must be omitted this year and in the future."
Mr. McDowell said displaying religious decorations at City Hall opens a "Pandora's box" for any group from the Ku Klux Klan to Wicans to put up a display.
American Atheists is an organization that works for the civil rights of atheists and promotes the separation of church and state.
Mr. McDowell said the United States and Florida have laws forbidding excessive governmental entanglement with religion. Mr. McDowell said he considers the two angels excessive.
"What we want is absolute separation of religion and government," he said.
Similar cases, such as Lynch vs. Donnelly and Allegheny County vs. Greater Pittsburgh American Civil Liberties Union, already have made it to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in both cases that while a religious symbol might individually be unconstitutional, its inclusion with other secular decorations is not an endorsement of a particular religion to the exclusion of others.
Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said, "so long as it does not endorse any one faith, government may engage in religious expression."
However, he said if a town is found at fault, they could be liable for attorney fees and damages.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a bipartisan, public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions.
Mr. Wolf said he does not understand why Christmas decorations in Wildwood have become a big debate.
"There was no intent to make [the decorations] religious," Mr. Wolf said. "It is not a manger scene, but little wire frames of angels and deer with clear Christmas lights probably purchased from Wal-Mart."
Mr. Wolf told the Sumter County Times that if the angels offend Mr. McDowell, then he should ignore them.
"It's like television, it has an off-and-on switch," Mr. Wolf said. "If you do not like it, do not look at it."
Mr. McDowell is considering asking City Council to display decorations that represent his beliefs, such as decorations proclaiming Happy Winter Solstice, and having Mr. Wolf preside over a ceremony introducing the display to the public.
"He would have to apply," Mr. Wolf said.
Ron Barrier, National Spokesman for American Atheists, headquartered in New Jersey, said he does not believe the Wildwood case should be taken to court, but he supports Mr. McDowell's arguments.
"Angels are a concept of Christianity," Mr. Barrier said."Churches and temples own plenty of land to display all the decorations they want."

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