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Church and State

Municipal Entanglement

By Paul M. Barrett

RAISE A TOAST to Grendel's! The earthy Harvard Square eaterie this week won the right to serve alcohol regardless of opposition from neighborhood clergymen. Pouncing on a failure to separate church from state, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Massachusetts law which allows churches to veto liquor licenses for establishments within 500 feet of an altar.

Just around the corner from Grendel's, however, stands another example of municipal entanglement in religion that has received less attention than the restaurant ban, but which nonetheless should raise doubts in the minds of gift hunters hustling past it on their way to a merry holiday.

As it has for as long as anyone can remember, the city of Cambridge this month assembled a quaint wooden Nativity scene on the Brattle Square traffic island. Though most unassuming, the tiny plastic animals, pilgrim kings and baby Jesus violate the same constitutional principle raised when Grendel's had its day before the high court.

The debate over Christmas displays on public property has occupied civil libertarians for years and is often overshadowed by constitutional struggles waged on the national level, such as that over prayer in schools. But a Rhode Island Circuit Court of Appeals judge last month pushed the creche issue back into the spotlight by upholding a 1981 ruling forbidding the city of Pawtucket from mounting a manger scene. That city responded intelligently, selling its display to a private group which put it up on private property.

MAYOR VINCENT CIANCI of Providence reacted less wisely by loudly refusing to accede to requests that his government take down a creche it had placed on the City Hall steps. Vowing to fight a suit that will be filed this week by the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Cianci portrayed himself as a champion of piety to reporters: "I've talked with the ACLU in the past, and what I've told them is they're jealous because they don't have three wise men and a virgin in their whole organization."

To its credit, the Cambridge City Council has not ignored all the commotion. Councilor David Sullivan initiated an official review of the city's traditional creche sponsorship, and the city manager's office is expected to respond with a recommendation by Monday. Quick action is in order. Cambridge should dissociate itself with the Brattle Square Nativity display in keeping with the Rhode Island ruling and the blunt First Amendment stipulation prohibiting government activity "respecting an establishment of religion." Designed to prevent Congress or municipalities from advocating a particular spiritual belief, that passage clearly requires a city to refrain from even tacit endorsement of the Christian faith.

In his blustering argument against First Amendment experts. Mayor Cianci has pointed out that in Providence a private organization has actually paid for the religious tableau standing before the city's headquarters. But this has not deterred local ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown, who stressed in an interview that "by providing a municipal site for the display, the government clearly projects a support for the beliefs symbolized," Brown added: "We are not seeking equal representation for other religions; we want to emphasize that no spiritual belief should be advertised with any official entanglement."

Despite the Massachusetts ACLU's stated indifference toward the case here, Cambridge should not be deterred either. Finding an Elks Club lodge or a nearby congregation to sponsor the Brattle Square creche would only go half way toward complying with the city's constitutional responsibility. Commenting on Cianci's maneuvering in Providence, Rhode Island Council of Churches President Richard Craig observed correctly that the church has no right "to muscle in on government property just to show that its influence is such that it can be done."

If it hurries, the Cambridge City Council can still make a nice Christmas gift to some deserving parish so that celebrants can enjoy the little wooden Nativity scene in the setting in which it belongs on private property.

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