“The angel’s dead,” John Porgal, regional director of American Atheists, said when he arrived to find the figurine lying on a table.
Pam Olsen, who organized the Christian displays, told the Associated Press that she doesn’t approve of vandalism: “I do not like the display. I think it’s rude and it’s sad that he put it up to protest the Nativity that means so much to millions of people; however, I don’t think anyone should ever vandalize anything. Free speech is free speech whether we like it or not.”
The Satanic Temple’s diorama was included this year after being rejected as “grossly offensive” by state officials last year.
Along with a nativity scene, last year’s holiday display at the Florida’s Capitol building included a pole honoring the “Seinfeld” holiday Festivus and a “Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Florida officials gave the Satanists the go-ahead this year after religious freedom groups threatened to sue.
Similar controversies cropped up around the country.
After neighbors complained, Ohio officials, citing property maintenance codes, ordered a Cincinnati man on Tuesday to take down a zombie-themed nativity scene on his front lawn. Jasen Dixon faces a $1,000 fine if he doesn’t remove it by Friday, the day after Christmas. The display features a pale baby Jesus with blank eyes surrounded by skeletal life-sized figures, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Township administrator Greg Bickford told the Dispatch the problem is the size and location of the display, which he considers “comical.”
A resident of Cherokee County asked county officials to include humanist symbols in the life-sized nativity scene at the county courthouse. According to the American Humanist Association, which has taken up the concerned citizen’s cause, his request was rejected by the county commission, who accused him in an e-mail of “trying to destroy and denigrate” Christian beliefs” and “infiltrate the Christmas holiday.” Now the AHA is threatening to sue if the whole thing isn’t removed.
They argue a Christian-only display amounts to a “monument to Christianity that conveys the unmistakable message of governmental endorsement of religion, and Christianity specifically,” citing the prohibition on government endorsement of religion in the U.S. Constitution. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who is also the state’s attorney general, is siding with the county. He wrote in a statement: “Cherokee County is under no legal obligation to remove the nativity scene from the courthouse grounds. Should Cherokee County choose to continue its tradition of including a nativity scene within the County’s display this Christmas season, the Texas Attorney General’s Office stands ready to provide appropriate legal support.”
The ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging a religious display at the Franklin County Courthouse that doesn’t include secular holiday symbols. “When the County displays a nativity scene on the Courthouse grounds, close to the entrance and in a prominent position, it places the County government’s stamp of approval behind the Christian religious doctrine, to the exclusion of citizens who are not Christian, such as Jews, Native American practitioners, Muslims, etc., as well as the significant and growing portion of the United States population that is not religious at all,” said Annie Laure Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is party to the lawsuit.
The nativity scene has been displayed for more than 50 years, according to the IndyStar. It includes life-size figurines of baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the three wise men.
When challenges to holiday displays wind up in court, judges may apply what’s known as the “reindeer rule.” In two cases in the 1980s, the Supreme Court said holiday displays on public grounds are permitted as long as they don’t send the message the government is promoting religion or endorsing one religion over another. They approved a Rhode Island town’s display that had a nativity scene along with traditional secular symbols, including a plastic reindeer and Santa. The Court also approved a Pennsylvania display featuring a menorah, Christmas tree and sign honoring liberty. However, they struck down a display that featured a nativity scene with a banner that read: “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.”
Arkansas seem to have taken the reindeer rule to heart. After someone contacted the American Humanist Association about last year’s “exclusively Christian display,” the Baxter County Courthouse added a Santa and some plastic reindeer. It also came with this disclaimer on a sign: “During the Holiday Season, the County of Baxter salutes liberty. Let these festive lights and times remind us that we are keepers of the flame of liberty and our legacy of freedom. Whatever your religion or beliefs, enjoy the holidays. This display is owned and erected by private citizens of Baxter County.”