Sign Slip-Up: Ohio Town Was Right To Remove Christian Marquee Message

Christmas may be over, but before we head into a new year, I think it's important to point out one last tussle over the holiday that had a happy ending.

The mayor of Avon, Ohio, posted the message "Remember Christ is in Christmas" on a marquee outside city hall on Dec. 15.

To Mayor Karl Zuber, it seemed like a harmless sign, just a "good Christmas message."

Sure, for a sign outside a church. But for a sign outside city hall, there is need to be more considerate – not to mention a requirement to follow the Constitution.

The Cleveland Chapter of Americans United wrote a letter to Zuber reminding him of just that. Their letter protested the sign for being a First Amendment violation as well as disrespectful to minority faiths in the community. They asked for the message to come down.

"They just want any type of religion out of government," Zuber told the Chronicle-Telegram, in his resistance to removing the message. "I think the government was founded on Christian principles, and I'm a firm believer in those principles."

Fortunately, there are wiser members in Avon's government who remember American history, and the law, accurately. City Council President Greg Zilka and at-large Councilman Martin O'Donnell, as well as the city's law director, recommended that the sign come down.

"In my opinion, it crossed a line," Zilka told the Chronicle-Telegram. "I found it inappropriate. There's no question that a vast majority of people in the community probably felt comfortable with the sign up, but the separation of church tenant allows people to worship as they wish. The Constitution is there to also protect the minority."

Zuber finally agreed to change the message to simply "Remember."

This was not a drawn-out battle that captured a lot of attention outside of Avon, but it illustrates an important principle and a point about Americans United's work.

We all know the Constitution prevents government officials from promoting religion or from interfering with anyone's free exercise of religion. When a city government promotes Christianity, or any other faith, that is just what it is doing. Unless someone objects, government officials could get away with flouting the Constitution.

We are glad that in this incident, AU chapter activists spoke up. Even if to some it seems small, it really is a large victory based on principle.

Americans United's chapters and our Legal Department challenge these types of situations in communities across the country every day. Many of them are never mentioned in the media, but more important goals are achieved because numerous violations are corrected – often without going to court.

We applaud our Cleveland chapter for its persistence in protecting church-state separation. Victories like this are important in our ongoing efforts to protect the church-state wall.