[UPDATE] 12/12 11:53 a.m.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation says one Pennsylvania city doesn't have to take down its Nativity scene, which sits on the lawn in front of city hall, as long as the city also agrees to put up a banner that mocks God and religion.
“At this season of the Winter Solstice, LET REASON PREVAIL,” the banner says. “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.”
A letter sent from the FFRF to Ellwood City's mayor, Anthony Court, restates the organization's position that they believe the Nativity display to be a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, a position they made clear for the first time about a year ago. The letter, sent Dec. 1, also explains that the organization would like to take up Court's offer, which he extended during an interview with WFMJ, to meet with individuals who follow other religions and would like to also to put up the symbols of their religion.
This year’s Nativity scene is surrounded by a Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, snowman, and Hanukkah and Kwanza symbols. But FFRF’s atheist banner was rejected. Court said it endorsed atheism and “put down what others believed.”
The Nativity scene has been a Christmas tradition in Ellwood City for the last 50 years. Court told The Christian Post on Thursday that the citizens' support of the city on this issue is “overwhelming,” and that “close to 100 percent” of the people in the city are in favor of both keeping the Nativity scene and preventing the banner from being put up.
"It's very offensive. We have here our nativity scene, the statues. What they're professing is wording that would be very offensive to the majority of our community,” he said.
Court says he has received FFRF's letters and faxes regarding the issue, but hasn't yet spoken to anyone from the organization directly.
“I have never spoken to them. There's no reason for me to debate them on their issue because I feel they're out of line,” he said.
He has also sought legal advice in the matter to make sure the Nativity display is permissible on public property.
“I've talked to our solicitor about this a few times, and we're in our rights to do what we're doing. We have other religions and other beliefs here. We also have a snowman, a Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, so we're ... within the boundaries of doing what we're doing, according to our solicitor,” he said.
Cliff Reynolds, senior pastor of Word Alive Church in Ellwood City, says the banner is contrary to the belief system of most people in the city.
"There's only one person, from what I understand, that raised a fuss about the Nativity scene," Reynolds told CP. "I don't think that we should be restricted in our free expression of our love for God and expressing our dependence upon Him because of one individual."
[The news update is below]
Hiram Sasser, litigation director for Liberty Institute, told The Christian Post via email on Friday that nativity scenes like the one in Ellwood City “are permissible as long as they are accompanied by other secular Christmas decorations.”
“Freedom From Religion Foundation is sending hundreds of letters across the country trying to bully small towns and schools into dismantling their Christmas traditions. They are certainly waging a war on Christmas,” Sasser wrote. “The sad part is, that group does not have the financial resources to back up all their threats. Moreover, they tend to lose their cases in rather basic ways – like lack of jurisdiction. Thus, the war is on, but all the towns and schools must do to win the war is to simply not give in to these guys who are all bark and no bite.”