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CITY OF OCONOMOWOC - A national nonprofit group dedicated to enforcing the separation of church and state has sent a letter to the city's mayor demanding the removal of religious signs it says are on city property.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Madison, sent a letter to Mayor David Nold on May 12 saying the signs — which say "the churches of Oconomowoc welcome you" — violate the Constitution by favoring Christianity over other religions.

The signs are at Bender Park and along East Wisconsin Avenue.

"These signs convey a message to non-Christians in Oconomowoc that they are not 'favored members of the political community,'" the group's attorney, Ryan Jayne, wrote in the letter.

Nold said the city has not decided what it will do about the letter.

“We're still evaluating and talking to legal counsel to figure out what's the best way to handle it,” he said.

The city is looking into whether the signs are actually on public land, Nold said, which has not yet been determined.

Maps on the Waukesha County website show the signs are on public land, but a disclaimer says the information is not guaranteed to be accurate.

Nold said he did not know the year the signs were installed, but they have been present in the city for at least 50 years.

“I can remember when I was a kid seeing those signs coming through town,” he said.

In a phone interview Friday morning, Jayne said his foundation did not set a date for the removal of the signs. He said he would like to avoid litigation, but the foundation will consider suing if the city refuses to act.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that the signs violate the Constitution  because they are not neutral toward all faiths, the letter said.

"Displaying signs that promote Oconomowoc's Christian churches, along with Latin crosses, fails to respect either constitutional mandate of neutrality," the letter said. "It endorses religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths."

Jayne said his organization was notified of the signs by a "concerned local resident."

Jayne said requests to remove signs like the two in Oconomowoc are often met with resistance from Christians. He said he believes those opinions would be different if the signs promoted another religion. 

If the signs were promoting Islam on city property, “I think a lot of Christians would understand the problem with that,” he said, adding that the signs can make non-Christians feel disenfranchised.

“Because Christianity is the majority religion, I think it's often difficult for people who are in that majority to understand why it feels that way,” he said.

The organization's website says its goals are "to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism."

The group has brought more than 85 First Amendment lawsuits since 1977, its website says, and has taken and won more challenges of the "faith-based initiative" than any other national group.

 

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