Church sues over park display

Calvary Chapel filed a federal lawsuit against the county, claiming censorship over its planned Christmas display.

A Fort Lauderdale church is challenging Broward County’s refusal to allow a cross and sign reading ”Jesus is the reason for the season” in a two-mile holiday lights attraction at a county park.

Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday claiming unconstitutional censorship after months of wrangling with county officials over its planned display at the Holiday Festival of Lights.

”Very clearly it’s a First Amendment case,” said John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which defends religious freedoms. “All they’re asking is just to be part of an event where hundreds of other businesses are celebrating Christmas and be able to say what they want to say within reason.”

A call for comment to the Broward County state attorney’s office was not immediately returned.

The annual drive-through attraction draws more than 250,000 visitors to Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek.

A county attorney rejected the church’s message in April, but then approved both the cross and message in June. He later withdrew permission again in August. The county issued a new policy in September allowing sponsors to pick from designs offered by the county, the lawsuit said.

Under the old policy allowing sponsors to design their own displays, the church displayed a star last year but, at county urging, switched its message from ”Remember Him” to “God Bless America.”

The church is willing to pay a $15,000 fee to join hundreds of other privately sponsored displays. Calvary Chapel Pastor Bob Coy said earlier that the county threatened to cancel the 11th annual event after the church insisted on its message.

A county policy issued in October 2002 on holiday displays discourages the use of religious symbols, including Nativity scenes and crucifixes, on county property but allows menorahs.

Calvary Chapel is seeking an injunction to erect its cross and message and to erase the new design policy for the two-month display starting Nov. 22.

Displays of religious symbols and messages often generate lawsuits during the holiday season over the sensitive issue of separation of church and state.

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