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Town of Palm Beach Pays $50,000 In Attorney Fees – Apologizes To Women In Nativity Lawsuit
Tue, Jun 29, 2004
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ANN ARBOR, MI — Ending a six month legal battle over Christmas displays, the Town of Palm Beach, Florida this week paid $50,000 in attorney fees to the Thomas More Law Center pursuant to a previously entered federal court Consent Judgment. The Town also acknowledged and publicly apologized for its failure to respond to multiple offers by two of its residents, Maureen Donnell and Fern Tailer deNarvaez, to donate Christian Nativity scenes for display alongside two Town-sponsored Jewish Menorahs during the Christmas holiday season.

Donnell commented, "We won everything that we wanted. All religions will be treated equally. That's all we were fighting for. Now the Town Council must address every situation that comes up, which they did not do with us.”

“I'm so glad we were able to come to an equitable agreement through the efforts of the Thomas More Law Center," added deNarvaez.

The Consent Judgment signed by a federal district court judge in late May acknowledged the importance of recognizing religious holidays and provided that “Should the Town erect or allow the display of religious symbols on public property…all religious symbols will be given equal treatment.” The court also ordered the Town to enact and make public within 90 days written procedures for reviewing citizen requests for religious displays on public property. The Town was also ordered to pay $1.00 to each woman as nominal damages for the Town’s negligence in responding to the women’s requests.

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center commented, “This lawsuit and the resulting legal fees would have never occurred had the Town displayed some common courtesy toward two of its residents. Clearly, Christians of Palm Beach were being denied the right to express their religious message in a public forum that was open to other religious faiths. This Consent Judgment will bring to an end the Town’s discrimination towards the Christian faith during one of its holiest seasons.”

The case against the Town of Palm Beach began last December after the Town ignored four requests by Donnell and deNarvaez to display privately donated Nativity scenes. The women contacted the Thomas More Law Center which immediately filed a federal lawsuit alleging that for the past two years the Town of Palm Beach had permitted the public display of Jewish Menorahs at various prominent public locations, but had repeatedly refused to review the women’s requests to allow Christian Nativity scenes displayed alongside the approved Menorahs.

Town officials attempted to publicly justify their treatment of the women by claiming that displaying a Nativity scene alongside a Menorah would be unconstitutional. Yet, documents obtained by the Law Center confirmed that months before the lawsuit was filed, Town officials were informed that the display of a Nativity scene alongside a Menorah was constitutionally permissible.

In the Consent Judgment, Town officials agreed that both Donnell and deNarvaez desired to have a Christian Nativity displayed alongside the Menorahs so that Jews and Christians could celebrate together their religious faith, and that the lawsuit may not have been necessary had the Town not repeatedly ignored their requests.

According to Edward L. White III, Associate Counsel with the Law Center, “Thanks to Mrs. Donnell and Mrs. deNarvaez, all citizens will now be able to display their religious symbols equally on public property in Palm Beach without fear of discrimination.”

The Thomas More Law Center is involved in numerous cases across the country dealing with the public display of Christian religious symbols, including a similar lawsuit against the New York City public school system whose written policy permits students to display the Jewish Menorah and the Islamic Star and Crescent, but prohibits students from displaying Christian Nativity scenes. That case is on appeal in the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.