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Court Oversteps Its Bounds In Jersey City

WASHINGTON
This year, for the first time in more than a generation, the City Hall of Jersey City, NJ. sits empty: no menorah, no creche. A federal appeals court, acting on a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, has ordered the city to remove all religious symbols from public grounds.

The case is attracting attention not only because the ACLU seems determined to put Jesus on the 10 Most Wanted List, but also because Jersey City is an unlikely venue for such a suit.

The burg is Diversity Central. According to the 1990 census, 41 percent of the city's households speak a language other than English. Nearly a quarter of its residents are foreign-born, and 20 percent have emigrated within the decade.

The city's mayor, Bret Schundler, has decided to honor his polyglot population by noting every major religious observance and most national holidays -- including such things as Greek Independence Day and Dominican Flag-Raising Day. The city not only commemorates Ramadan and joins the United Hindu Federation of New Jersey in staging a Phagwah Parade to celebrate the Hindu New Year, Schundler also gives city employees paid vacation to observe the holy days of their faiths,

The city erects a sign at each fete: "Throughout the year, the City of Jersey City is pleased to celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its peoples."

Despite these efforts, the federal court ordered the swift removal of the menorah and nativity scene -- even after local officials junked up the scene by adding a sled, a Santa, a snowman and a tree filled with Kwanzaa stuff.

The ruling raises three grand issues. The first is the law.

The Supreme Court has ruled that religious displays pass constitutional muster if they don't offend someone "aware of the history and context of the community and forum in which the religious display appears."

This certainly seems to apply in the Jersey City display. Local residents -- Schundler estimates that at least 85 percent support his position on this issue -- know the city honors various religious and ethnic groups all the time. Indeed, the ACLU actually had to go out and hunt for a plaintiff in this case. Nobody came forward in fury, demanding to sue.

Nevertheless, the appeals court tossed out the Supreme Courts "reasonable man" standard and replaced it with a "traveling idiot" gauge:. If the display miffs any passing observer, it has to go. Jersey City is appealing the decision.

The second grand issue is the relationship between religion and state. There seems to be a growing view among federal judges that the mere mention of faith violates the Constitution. Some lawyers even want to strike the word "God" from our currency and the Pledge of Allegiance -- intimating darkly that pogroms began with exuberant priests.

These facile warnings ignore the fact that pogroms took place somewhere else. The United States has remained free of bloody sectarian conflict because it protects the freedom of all religions and doesn't let the government pick one faith over another.

Until now, These days, Uncle Sam seems concerned only about the feelings of pagans. The government forces taxpayers to underwrite Andres Serrano's Piss Christ -- an "art work" consisting of a crucifix partially submerged in a beaker of urine.

Courts also have ordered Cincinnati to let the Ku Klux Klan erect crosses on the public square during holiday seasons -- a "tradition'' that ended this year when police jailed the local Klansman on charges of raping and molesting a couple of young girls. So the KKK and vital-bodily-fluid freaks can do their will with religious symbols, but Jersey city can't.

The Constitution hardly, demands such behavior. Even the deist Thomas Jefferson considered religion indispensable in a free society. Schundler notes that the signal virtues of Our democracy -- the reverence for life and liberty, the commitment to equality before the law and the notion of tolerance -- derive not from legal briefs, but Western religious traditions.

In this country, faith serves as a rebuttal to political arrogance and refuge from tyranny, It places God above men who would be gods. There is nothing more dangerous than a government that considers itself an instrument of morality, Popes are a menace when they. command armies, and so are politicians who back their godlike ambitions with squadrons of federal agents.

Americans have wrestled to keep the secular and sacred in proper balance, But in the Jersey City case, a federal court tipped up the law, scoffed at public opinion -- and took sides,

This leads to the third great issue raised by this case: Why, when we have real threats to public peace in this country, are so many lawyers determined to define religion as a vice -- something to be practiced only behind closed doors. Do they really believe the First Amendment bans public religion and demands sacrilege?

Tony Snow is The News editorial page's Washington columnist. His column is published on Monday and Thursday. Write The News at Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226 or fax to (313) 222-6417, or send an email to letters@detnews.com


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