Lawyer Says Nativity Was Illegal; Century Declares Nativity Scene Surplus
December 6, 2012
The Town of Century has declared their nativity scene as surplus property and will sell it to the highest bidder, months after an attorney for a Wisconsin group that represents agnostics and atheists sent letters to the town claiming that a nativity display on public property is illegal.
A nativity scene had been displayed in front of the Century Town Hall for several years. It was displayed for a just a few days during the 2011 Christmas season, but was removed because it was basically falling apart due to age.
In a July 17, 2012, NorthEscambia.com story about the Century Town Council’s wish to purchase new Christmas decorations, Century Town Council President Ann Brooks was quoted as saying “I believe we all want a manger scene”. Three days later, as a result of that story, Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, fired off a letter and fax to Brooks objecting to a nativity scene on public property.
“We can assure you that not all Century residents want a manger scene,” Seidel wrote. “A local resident brought this news story to our attention in hopes that we would halt an imminent First Amendment violation.”
Seidel claimed that a display consisting solely of a nativity scene, “depicting the mythical birth of the Christian god [sic]“, endorses a single religion and is thus illegal according to the Supreme Court.
“There are ample private and church grounds were religious displays may be freely placed,” Seidel wrote. “Once the council enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship.”
Following their July meeting, the Century Council moved forward in purchasing wreaths to adorn utility poles along Highway 29, but a nativity scene was never purchased. The town also, for some number of months, did not respond to the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s letters and faxes.
Matt Dannheisser, the town’s attorney, advised the town that they could allow private entities to erect holiday displays the town hall in exercise of their First Amendment freedom of speech rights. Alternatively, Dannheisser said the town should include “traditional holiday symbols” such a Menorah and Christmas tree with a “secular message” such as “Peace of Earth, Goodwill Towards Men”.
A town official said selling the nativity scene as surplus property to the highest bidder really was not a response to the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s assertions, but was due solely to the aging condition of the manger scene set making it unsuitable for public display.
Pictured: Some of the Town of Century’s Christmas decorations on display at the Nadine McCaw Park on Highway 29. The aging decorations were donated by Pensacola several years ago. NorthEscambia.com photos, click to enlarge.