Ron Ramo, Treasurer of the Libertarian Party of Queens County, has challenged the presence of a "Celebrate Ramadan" sign located in one of the Flower Fields at Columbus Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, New York.
In a letter to the New York City Parks Department dated August 15, 2011, Mr. Ramo wrote:
I was in Columbus Plaza today, and I noticed there was a sign declaring Celebrate Ramadan. I would like to know if this sign was installed with the approval of the NYC Parks Dept. and if so, was any compensation paid to the city for such use. Lastly, could the NYC Parks Dept. please provide me any memo or other opinion papers that determined such a sign does not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (as interpreted in the case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989)) or Article 1, Section 3 and 11 of the NYS Constitution.
John Clifton, Chair of the Libertarian Party of Queens County, commented on Mr. Ramo's inquiry to the NYC Parks Dept. as follows:
Ron has been sharp enough to point this case out, though there are complications. First, are we complaining about a constitutional violation, or the selective non-enforcement of it (no enforcement for Muslim or Jewish signs, yes for Christian displays)? Second, is there a constitutional violation? Not a lawyer here, but I have heard that there have been different federal court cases (on different circuits) that have ruled in both directions on this matter, and that the Supreme Court has failed to rule on their appeals, to reconcile the decisions.
The 1st Amendment as written forbids Congress/federal government from establishing a church, not a state or municipality from incidentally acknowledging a holiday display of religious origin. The decisions (like Allegheny) that say it is a violation seem to draw from the 14th Amendment incorporation doctrine to add the states to the prohibition, while other cases do not feel the application of that doctrine is relevant, and lean towards the "free exercise" of religion clause in permitting such signs or displays. Maybe our goal here should be to simply get clarity or consistency from the city on the matter, instead of appearing to inhibit the free exercise of a major faith based on one school of constitutional interpretation.
Ronald S. Ramo is an attorney residing in South Ozone Park, New York. He serves as Treasurer of the Libertarian Party of Queens County and as Vice-Chair of Long Island Libertarians (covering Kings County, Queens County, Nassau County & Suffolk County).