Ellwood City, Pennsylvania has a tradition of displaying a nativity scene in front of their Municipal Building that stretches back fifty years. The annual display went off without a hitch until last year, when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation atheist group argued that the creche was a violation of the separation of church and state, and threatened to protest this week as a result.
As a sop to the FFRF, this year's nativity scene included other religious and secular symbols, including Santa Claus, reindeer, a snowman (no corncob pipe), and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa symbols. (A 1985 Supreme Court ruling requires any religious symbols on public property to be accompanied by secular symbols.) Due to what turned out to be false rumors of potential protesting by the atheist group, Ellwood City's mayor, Anthony Court, invited the FFRF to contribute something to the borough's modified display. The anti-Christmas group took the mayor up on his offer, and mailed the town a banner that read:
"At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
But Mayor Court rejected the banner for inclusion in Friday's display, saying, "I believe [the banner] violates the First Amendment. It's endorsing atheism. [The creche] is a statue. It's not a doctrinal statement."
Regardless of what one's beliefs are, it seems a shame that an out-of-state organization has to meddle with a small town's peaceful tradition that's been going on for decades. I can hardly imagine hearts hardening at the sight of baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and company. FFRF's co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, responded:
"The mayor invited us to put up our own display, and we are taking him up on it. We wrote this as a repudiation of the manger scene. The manger scene is a doctrinal statement…If you don't believe that baby is your lord and savior, according to Christian tradition and hymns sung at this time of year, then you are not saved."
Gaylor also brushed off the argument that the nativity scene isn't just a Christian symbol, due to some Muslims having defended it as honoring Jesus as a prophet equal to Muhammad. She said, "Are you trying to tell me that someone could look at that and not think this is about Christianity? The national pastime is denial, but that is carrying denial a little too far, don't you think?"