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Belen mayor vows Nativity scene will stay

BELEN – A historic Hispanic city in New Mexico has one in the center of town on public property. Denver has one in front of its City Hall. A small farming community in Colorado has one outside a public park. A Pennsylvania city refused to take its display down despite a legal threat.

Across the country, annual disputes over displays celebrating the birth of Jesus on public land have pitted local residents against advocacy groups pushing separation of church and state. But after years of complaints, communities continue to resist demands that they remove public display celebrating the birth of Jesus from public property.

The moves come after residents have rallied around the displays or conservative groups have offered legal assistance to keep displays up amid legal threats.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead issue,” said Jerah Cordova, the mayor of Belen, where a Nativity scene artwork sits year-round and was not taken down after threats of legal action last year. “The Nativity scene not only represents the history of our town; it represents our culture.”

Belen – Spanish for Bethlehem – is a small city of 7,000 people and nearly 70 percent Hispanic. Last year, residents raised $50,000 for a festival in support of the display after a letter threatening legal action.

In Franklin, Pa., a city of 6,500, councilors last month voted to keep a decades-old Nativity scene in a city park after receiving an email from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. That foundation has sent similar letters warning municipalities that public Nativity scenes violated the separation of church and state.

Franklin’s city councilors consulted lawyers and resolved the issue by agreeing to allow secular Christmas decorations in the park.

A Nativity scene is displayed next to a public park in the farming community of McClave, Colo. Some communities have balked at demands to remove the public displays. (Russell Contreras/Associated Press)

A Nativity scene is displayed next to a public park in the farming community of McClave, Colo. Some communities have balked at demands to remove the public displays. (Russell Contreras/Associated Press)

Officials in St. Bernard, Ohio, a suburban of Cincinnati, ignored a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and opted to keep in place a Nativity scene in front of City Hall.

In Bethlehem, Pa., tourists visit to see miniature depictions of various settings of the Nativity story. That display is run by the nonprofit, Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites and is not connected to the city government.

In previous years, some municipalities pulled Nativity scenes after receiving complaints from the foundation. For example, officials in Wadena, Minn., removed the city’s decades-old Nativity scene off public property after receiving a letter from the foundation.

Supporters and opponents of the Nativity scenes agree that municipalities are fighting harder to protect the displays.

“We are seeing more municipalities digging in after learning about their rights,” said Mat Staver, who heads the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which offers the municipalities advice to protect them and volunteered free legal help for Franklin, Pa.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said more cities and towns simply ignore complaints that placing Christian art on public property violates the U.S. Constitution.

In recent years, conservative Christians have complained about the secularization of Christmas, said Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We also are seeing a rural and city divide, where rural areas are facing less resistance (to Nativity scenes) while there is more conflict in cities, which are more diverse,” Chesnut said.

Gaylor said some cities and towns are getting around the conflict by setting up public spaces where volunteers can erect Nativity scenes along with secular Christmas displays. “But we don’t think putting a couple of reindeer up near a Nativity scene solves the problem,” Gaylor said.

Still, the pressure has forced some cities to scrap plans for Nativity scene displays. In Gig Harbor, Wash. – a maritime city near Tacoma – officials blocked residents from putting up a display after getting a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. That prompted a small protest in the city of 7,000 people this week from residents who wanted a Nativity scene.

When cities and state allow the public spaces, Gaylor said, the foundation tries to submit its own display. In some states, the foundation put up a Nativity scene with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Statue of Liberty. Instead of baby Jesus in a manger, the group put in place a copy of the Bill of Rights.

In New Mexico, Cordova predicted Belen will never remove its Nativity scene.

“It’s here to stay,” he said.

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