(Photo: Screenshot via WMBB-TV)
An atheist group is demanding a Florida City Hall remove its nativity display, arguing that its presence on government property is an unconstitutional union of church and state. Residents and officials in the city are fighting back, however, demanding that the display stay on City Hall premises and arguing that America needs to take back its rights to religious freedom and free speech.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation claims that earlier in December it received notification of a nativity scene on City Hall property in Chipley, Fla., nearly 90 miles west of Tallahassee. The organization, which demands the separation of church and state in the public square, then reportedly sent a letter to Chipley's government officials requesting that they remove the nativity scene.
"The Supreme Court has ruled it impermissible to place a nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property," the FFRF reportedly wrote in an email to Chipley Mayor Linda Cain, according to WJHG-TV. Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the FFRF, added to the local WMBB-TV that "erecting a display with a message that's central to the Christian religion can only be seen as an endorsement of that message."
The FFRF also added that it's inappropriate for the city to own the nativity display, suggesting it be sold to a private party. According to The Blaze, one local man has offered to buy the nativity and donate it back to the city, but no decisions have been made regarding that option.
Several residents of Chipley have said they like the nativity scene and don't think an outside organization such as the FFRF should interfere with their small town's decisions. Several local residents showed up to a city council meeting Tuesday regarding the nativity scene wearing red and green shirts that read: "Jesus is the reason for the season."
"I would much rather you all decide what's good for Chipley than a group that doesn't really believe in anything," said Richard Burke, a Chipley resident, at the city council meeting, according to WJHG-TV.
Resident Anne Chenault added to WMBB-TV that she believes the nativity scene represents the beliefs of the majority of residents living in the city and therefore should not be removed. "We're not forcing anybody to come down here and look but it's there if you want to come see it," she said. "We think it represents the majority of the beliefs of the people that live here."
Some residents are reportedly blaming Randal Seyler, editor of the Washington County News, for the controversy, arguing that he is the resident who contacted the FFRF in the first place, imploring about the constitutionality of the nativity scene. Mayor Cain said in a written statement last week that she heard Seyler commenting on the nativity scene at a Dec. 5 city workshop.
Seyler then published an apology in the Washington County News on Dec. 9, saying that he had in fact called the FFRF and other organizations to find out more about the constitutionality of the nativity scene for a possible article, but did not expect such a heated controversy to erupt. "It was not my plan to take down the city's nativity scene nor cause anyone else to do so," Seyler wrote, adding that now "the can of worms had been opened, and it just kept spilling."
Since the initial controversy over the nativity display, the city's officials have also added a Christmas tree to the display in an attempt to satisfy those wishing to see secular symbols. The FFRF has said, however, that the city either needs to remove the nativity display or allow any group to set up a display on the City Hall lawn, which is what Florida's Capitol building in Tallahasee has allowed.
Still, many residents are continuing to argue that they don't want the display to be removed. "We as a country have given our rights away," Council Member Karen Rustin said at the city council meeting on Tuesday. "We have been giving our rights away for years and it's about time that communities and church leaders all get together and start taking our country back."
"It's not coming down," Rustin added.