Nativity scene on Dewey Hill continues controversy over displays on public land

Posted at 5:19 PM, Dec 03, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-03 17:59:48-05

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. – The tradition of displaying a cross and nativity scene for more than 50 years on Dewey Hill in Grand Haven continues to be challenged.

Jill Roberts has spent her life in Grand Haven. She said the Dewey hill cross and nativity scene is part of the town. “It brings people downtown,” said Roberts. "It’s a very Christian community. It seems sad that a small number get to set the agenda for the whole town.”

Members of the Facebook group Remove the Grand Haven Cross believe it is unconstitutional to have a religious scene displayed on public land. Their attorney, Alex Luchenitser with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told FOX17 he has sent several letters to the city of Grand Haven since 2012.

Luchenitser is asking officials to remove the scene or to allow other groups to install their own displays on Dewey Hill.

“Displaying the cross is a violation of the Constitution, because the mechanism to which the cross is attached is not in any free speech zone,” said Luchenitser. “You have a cross that’s government speech. It’s raised by the city, it’s operated by city employees, it’s been funded and maintained by the city, and it’s owned by the city.”

Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis told FOX17 that the city makes sure they are within the law and no city funds are used for the display.

McGinnis also said the location is a public forum, meaning other groups can apply to put their own display on Dewey Hill. However, McGinnis qualified that statement and said the city is reviewing that policy because Dewey Hill is environmentally sensitive.

Luchenitser said all groups must have equal access.

“Either everybody has to have full and complete equal access to the hill, or all the religious displays on the hill have to come down,” said Luchenitser.

As of December 3, the Facebook group, Keep the Grand Haven Cross, has more than triple the likes of the group Remove the Grand Haven Cross. Keep the Grand Haven Cross also started a petition that was displayed in many nearby businesses.

Meanwhile, Luchenitser told FOX17 they are determining whether or not to move forward and sue the city.

"It seems very likely that litigation will ensue unless the city completely changes its mind about what it's doing and decides to stop displaying the cross and the nativity scene,” said Luchenitser.