It wouldn’t be the holidays without controversial nativity scenes igniting lawsuits across the country.  Generally, these lawsuits are brought under the Establishment Clause, alleging that the government illegally endorses one religion over another by permitting religious displays on public property.  Even controversial religious displays on private property can lead to zoning enforcement action.  Last year, we reported about a Sycamore Township, Ohio resident’s dispute with local zoning officials over a zombie nativity scene on his property.  The nativity scene included three zombie wise men and a baby-fanged Jesus.  Anyone interested in what a zombie nativity scene looks like, photos are available here.

In my own neighborhood, one homeowner never disappoints by placing a life-size nativity scene on his property (see the photo below for the display).  This year, however, the life size camels carrying wise men are absent.  New on the scene is half a horse.  Go figure.

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The nativity scene in my neighborhood isn’t the only one causing controversy.  Here are some others that have caused a stir:

  • The Freedom From Religion Foundation is threatening to sue the city of Dallas, North Carolina over a nativity scene displayed in front of the courthouse. The nativity scene stands alongside Frosty the Snowman and various reindeer.  The Foundation fought the city last year over its nativity scene display.  This year, the city approved the construction of an even larger nativity scene.  Local coverage is available here.
  • Jake and John Doe are suing Elkhart, Indiana’s Concord Community High School over the school’s traditional live nativity scene. Reportedly, the live nativity scene is a 30-year tradition that is part of the school’s annual Christmas Spectacular.  The Doe’s were recently allowed by a federal judge to proceed anonymously with the lawsuit for fear that  they would become “the victims of harassment, injury and other serious harm if their identities are made public.”  A pro-live nativity scene group has organized a Facebook page (available here) called Save Concord’s Christmas Spec’s Nativity Scene.  The Facebook page administrator urged supporters to remain civil: “Let’s not give them any reason to call us hateful, and let’s remember what this is about … the kids, our community, tradition and the story of Christmas.”  Some supporters responded by posting comments on Facebook: “go home” or “get out of our country”  apparently directed at Jake and John Doe.  The Elkhart Truth reports on this story.
  • A federal judge has ruled unconstitutional Baxter County, Arkansas’s nativity scene display on the courthouse lawn, because the county did allow different viewpoints and there were no other religious displays there. The county tried get around the constitutional issue by leasing part of the lawn and also posting disclaimers that included some non-religious symbols, but to no avail.  Arkansas Times has more.  The court’s decision in American Humanist Association v. Baxter County is available here.
  • The Satanic Temple is one step closer to erecting its goat-headed man statue, Baphomet, on the Franklin County Courthouse lawn.  Last year, we reported on the lawsuit challenging the courthouse’s “traditional” nativity scene.  According to Eagle Country 99.3, the suit has settled and Franklin County has agreed to amend its ordinance concerning displays at the courthouse within 30 days.

Another holiday controversy involves  Starbucks’ decision to remove “symbols of the season” it has included on its cups in the past.  FOX News reports on the story here and characterizes Starbucks’ action as a “war on Christmas.”  Internet televangelist Joshua Feurstein took Starbucks to task in this video he posted, telling Starbucks employees that his name was “Merry Christmas” to trick them into writing “Merry Christmas” on his coffee cup.

Whatever your religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), we at RLUIPA Defense wish you and yours a very politically correct Happy Holidays.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.

Photo of John Peloso John Peloso

John Peloso, a partner in the firm’s Real Estate Litigation Group, is a trial lawyer who represents companies, municipalities, and individuals in a wide range of matters. At the administrative, trial, and appellate levels, John counsels clients and litigates real property disputes, including…

John Peloso, a partner in the firm’s Real Estate Litigation Group, is a trial lawyer who represents companies, municipalities, and individuals in a wide range of matters. At the administrative, trial, and appellate levels, John counsels clients and litigates real property disputes, including real estate, land use, environmental, and tax matters, including RLUIPA and eminent domain matters.

In the area of real estate litigation, John represents institutional, municipal, and individual clients in disputes involving title, zoning, wetlands, land use, RLUIPA, eminent domain, and other real property rights. He also represents clients in all aspects of commercial lease and other real estate transactional disputes. In the area of real property tax litigation, he represents institutional and individual clients in proceedings at the regulatory, administrative, and trial levels. In this regard, he has dealt with specialized issues involving among other things, the valuation of high-tech software, wireless communications equipment, contingency fee tax audits, special use properties, and the impact of environmental conditions on the valuation of real property.

Prior to joining Robinson+Cole, John was a member of the litigation department at White & Case LLP in New York City, where he concentrated his practice in complex commercial, property and securities litigation.