The Herald Bulletin

December 23, 2008

Library keeping Nativity despite complaint

Atheist demands removal as Christians protest

By Brandi Watters, Herald Bulletin Staff Writer

ELWOOD — The baby Jesus stays.

City library officials were choosing to keep a Nativity scene on display inside the library until an attorney or official from the American Civil Liberties Union forces them to take it down.

Elwood Public Library Director Jamie Scott said she received a complaint about the religious display on Friday from a patron who said he was an atheist.

“He demanded that it be taken down by (Monday),” Scott said on Tuesday. Scott would not release the name of the patron.

Scott said the patron threatened to set up a protest in front of the library branch on Monday if the scene was not taken down.

The threat was quickly leaked onto an Elwood Internet forum, prompting area religious leaders into action.

Becky Capps, a parishioner at Joy Christian Church, immediately notified her pastor, James Stout, and helped organize a protest to keep the display intact.

On Monday, Capps said, she joined Stout and around 30 other Elwood residents at the library, where they hoped to protect the Nativity scene.

A note of support for the Nativity was signed by more than 90 area residents, Scott said.

Scott said she spoke with a lawyer regarding the matter and said she was given two choices in handling the complaint.

“We could take it down immediately,” Scott said, “or we could wait to see if we received anything from a lawyer or the ACLU that it was a violation.”

The unidentified patron never held a protest on Monday, but Scott said a library employee thought she saw the man enter briefly to check on whether the Nativity was taken down.

Although the Nativity scene is a symbol of Christianity, Scott said she was simply trying to decorate the library branch for Christmas and did not intend to endorse Christianity.

“The way I feel about it is this is something that was donated to the library and has been a part of our holiday season decorations for almost 30 years,” she said. “We were not trying to promote any religion.”

Scott said she would gladly display a Jewish menorah or other religious holiday symbol within the library if one had been donated.

This was the first time, she said, that anyone had taken issue with the display.

When he heard about the controversy on an Internet forum, Brad Laub, program director at the Elwood YMCA, said the facility would proudly display the Christmas scene.

“This is another sign of the war on Christmas and Christianity,” he wrote on the forum.

Elwood is hardly the first community to experience controversy around the scene of Christ’s birth.

A county in Wisconsin is being sued over a Nativity scene on public land, while the Washington state capitol is now filled with different religious and secular displays in protest to its Nativity scene. Atheists posted an anti-religion sign near the Nativity and others actually erected a 5-foot aluminum pole celebrating the “Seinfeld”-inspired fictional holiday Festivus. An Ohio mayor is fighting to keep a Nativity display in front of the town’s municipal building after receiving a letter condemning the display from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

For Capps, Christmas without symbols of Christ isn’t an option.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Christ’s birth,” Capps said. “Art should be able to be displayed in a public scene.”

Capps said she wished the unknown atheist would ignore the Nativity. “If he doesn’t want to see it, don’t go there — don’t look. If there’s a place that allows smoking, I don’t like smoking, so I don’t go there. If you don’t like the Nativity scene, don’t go there.”

Stout, a pastor at Joy Christian Church in Elwood, said the idea of a separation of church and state was being misinterpreted by atheists and other groups.

“The whole idea of separation of church and state was not to keep the church out of the state,” Stout said. “It was to keep the state out of the church in the beginning. They’ve turned the whole thing upside down. In England, they had a state-run church.”

Stout said Christianity and American values were one in the same. “This is a Christian country that was founded on Christian principles.”

Though he believes in Christian principles, Stout said, he would not be opposed to other religious imagery on public property. “They can put up the menorah. They can put up a statue. They can put a totem pole.”

Stout said he didn’t believe that the atheist’s intention was to preserve the separation of church and state.

“His opposition is to God if he’s a true atheist,” Stout said. “It’s not against the library and who funds it.”

For now, the Nativity remains on display at the library and will stay in place until legal action forces the display down, or until the day after Christmas.