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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Huntington

BY CARA TABACHNICK AND CYNTHIA DANIELS
STAFF WRITERS

December 9, 2005, 9:57 PM EST

Huntington officials worked all night readying staff for the coming snow, but instead they woke up to a different storm Friday: a local lawyer sued to remove a nativity scene from the town's public lawn and stop Friday's Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

Mitchell Pashkin, 39, an attorney from Huntington, filed his suit in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, saying the nativity scene, Christmas tree and two signs on the Village Green that read "Peace on Earth" violated his constitutional rights because of their religious overtones.

The display -- at the corner of Park Avenue and Route 25A -- included a menorah, which Pashkin wrote was "dwarfed in significance and stature" and "appears as nothing more than a token attempt to be inclusive to the Jewish population."

Judge Leonard Wexler helped broker a compromise between Pashkin and the town Friday afternoon that allowed the tree ceremony to take place, Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone said. The deal calls for the town to put up large signs stating the nativity scene was donated by Huntington's Knights of Columbus and that the menorah came from the Chabad-Lubavitch in Melville, Petrone said. The signs are expected to be up Saturday and also must say that the nativity scene and the menorah are not town property.

The town board has scheduled a vote to approve the settlement Tuesday, officials said. Also, Wexler has scheduled a hearing at 6 p.m. on the same day in case the board does not approve the deal.

"I'm not anti-religion or against Christmas. This is not an attack on Jesus or Christians," said Pashkin, who declined to disclose his faith, saying it has nothing to do with his position. "I just don't want the town endorsing one religion. Lots of people out there don't celebrate Christmas."

At the tree-lighting Friday evening, Petrone called Wexler's decision "a good solution." "I look forward to putting the signs up and accepting any other group that comes forward with an experience and any type of religious or cultural thing they celebrate," he said.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of the recent uproar over North Hempstead Supervisor John Kaiman's handling of the town's tree-lighting ceremony in Manhasset. During the dedication, the Rev. Nick Zientarski invoked the name of Jesus Christ when he blessed the tree.

Kaiman told the crowd, "I just want to make it clear that this is in no way a religious ceremony." Kaiman has since apologized.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at The First Amendment Center in Virginia, said the Supreme Court has tried to set broad guidelines for local officials in such cases. "But," he said, "there is no bright line." The law states if a government puts up religious symbols, there need to be enough diverse symbols so a "reasonable observer" would think it was a holiday display. The courts consider Christmas trees, Santas and candy canes secular displays, Haynes said.

Still, he added, the real problem is "litigation has replaced baseball as our national pastime."

Some Long Island towns are trying to steer clear of the commotion, but each have varying views. Riverhead has been lighting a town Christmas tree for years, but there will be little religious symbolism to the ceremony. "The tree is not even a Christian tradition," Town Councilman Jim Lull said. "They're really from a pagan or naturalistic background."

However, in Brookhaven, outgoing Supervisor John Jay LaValle said: "I don't know what's wrong with people today. This is an ideological situation where liberal America is trying to destroy a Christian holiday."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said there is something wrong with the battle over religious symbols.

"People who have a spiritual interest in the holiday are going to get the experience from their church, not the town," he said.

"The Chrishanukkah craze of political correctness is driving me crazy," said Paul LaCarrubba, 51, of East Northport, who was at the Huntington tree lighting. "I think this whole debate is foolish. We all should respect each other."

Staff writers Mitchell Freedman, Robert E. Kessler and Dan Janison contributed to this story.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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