CITY OF WOODLAND, WASHINGTON

Scoot: Christmas controversy - Nativity Scene moved!

Scoot
December 12, 2018 - 12:55 pm
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For over 30 years, a nativity scene was placed in Horseshoe Lake Park in Woodland, Oregon.  The nativity scene had become part of a tradition for the people in Woodland, but following 5 complaints, the nativity scene was moved from the public park to private property not far away.

Since the debate over nativity scenes on public property goes back decades, why was the traditional nativity scene in Woodland, Oregon suddenly the target of criticism?  For whatever reason, this year a few people were inspired to complaint about the nativity scene and the city of Woodland concluded that it had no choice but to move the symbolic Christian display to private property.

The controversy over Christmas symbols on public property is not a new controversy, but every year there are new controversies that spark public debate.  The First Amendment has the Establishment Clause that states the government will not establish any religion.  But does a nativity scene on public property not seem to amount to the government establishing a religion?

In the Supreme Court case, Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the court ruled 5-4 that a nativity scene on public property did not violate the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, because it a passive display of religion and the religious symbol had “legitimate secular purposes.”

In the Supreme Court case of the County of Allegheny v. The American Civil Liberties Union (1989), the ruling was that a nativity scene and a menorah did violate the Establishment Clause and must be removed from public property.  The nativity scene in that case was in downtown Pittsburg and included a sign the read, “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.”  The message of that sign made the difference and it was written in the ruling that -“Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus.”

Different rulings lead to ambiguity of the law and it seems to be up to each government entity to decide whether to subject itself to the controversy and the legal battle that may ensue.  But one has to wonder about why the 5 complaints concerning the nativity scene in Woodland, Oregon suddenly surfaced this year after the display existed for over 30 years?

Maybe both sides of this debate are too intolerant and maybe this is another case of using a controversy as a vehicle for each side to say, “You’re wrong!”

Many debates appear to focus more on the debate than on that which is being debated and the case of the nativity scene in Woodland, Oregon may be a perfect example of that trend.  The nativity scene was on public property and there were complaints that its placement violated the Constitution.  The town of Woodland decided to address the complaints by moving the religious display to private property not far from the original location in a public park.

Perhaps those who complained that the city should not have bowed to the pressure to move the display should realize that the nativity scene is still on display, but it’s just in another visible location near the original location.  If the ultimate goal is for people to see the Christian display and if the display is still in full view of the public - why should it make a difference if it is on public or private property?

And for those offended by the sight of a Nativity Scene on public property - if the display is simply moved to a nearby location that is still visible to everyone - should it matter if it is on public or private property? 

I understand the law and why there is such sensitivity to Christian symbols on public property and laws concerning religious symbols on public property should be obeyed, but the reality is that those who wanted the nativity scene taken off public property did not stop the display from being seen by the public.  And for those who would demand that the display should be on public property - the nativity scene was moved, but to a place where they all can still view this Christian symbol. 

Essentially, the Christmas display is still in full view of the public - and wasn’t that the intent of putting up the display in the first place?

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