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Nativity Scene Forces Square Off Before High Court

November 20, 1985 GMT

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) _ A creche displayed at Denver’s City and County Building is a religious symbol and shows government preference for Christianity, a lawyer told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

″They don’t have the right to put up a religious Nativity display to the exclusion of other religions,″ David Hofer argued. But a lawyer representing the city said the display represented a ″collage of traditional Christmas symbols.″

Hofer represents Jane Conrad and Richard Grundmann, two Denver-area residents who object to the display on public property and supported by public funds.

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They say the Colorado constitution clearly forbids even unintentional preference for a religion.

One way to correct the problem, Hofer suggested, would be to allow any religion to display a symbol of its own - an idea he admitted could crowd the building’s broad steps with everything from a statue of Buddha to one of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that a city-sponsored Nativity display in a private park in Pawtucket, R.I., did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of separation of church of state.

Another lawsuit by Conrad and Grundmann - also citing the U.S. Constitution - became moot with that ruling.

Assistant Denver City Attorney Stan Sharoff argued that the creche loses religious meaning because ″it’s not displayed in isolation.″ Placement next to Santa Claus, reindeer and elves makes it part of a ″collage of traditional Christmas symbols,″ he said.

″I don’t think the Nativity scene is any more central to the message than Santa Claus and the reindeer,″ Sharoff said.

He said reference to a religion - not preference - is the issue. Mere reference to a religion in a display doesn’t violate the state constitution, he said.

The justices did not say when they would issue a ruling.

A Nativity scene has been part of the holiday display on the front steps of the building for at least 75 years.

The display has grown into a block-long, brightly lighted extravaganza that is not taken down until late January. The city says more than 100,000 people see it each year.