Religious freedom group argues MN city's nativity scene needs to go

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One Minnesota city's Joseph, Mary and Jesus figurines won't be back in a government-run park.

The Wadena City Council voted Tuesday to take down a nativity scene that's traditionally been displayed at the city-owned Burlington Northern Park, KARE 11 reports.

So what's the deal?

This really all started back in January, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to the city, arguing that it's unlawful for a city to put up and maintain a religious scene, "thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing one religion."

You can read the full letter here.

The nativity scene

A nativity scene (also called a crèche) is a model or presentation that shows the birth of Jesus Christ according to Christian theology, and usually includes Joseph and Mary as well as animals, Merriam-Webster explains. It's generally put up before Christmas, then after Dec. 25 the baby Jesus figure is added, signifying his entrance into the world.

Having that being part of the local government violates the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment, the Freedom from Religion Foundation argues – the clause "prohibits" a government from establishing a religion, the U.S. Court website says.

The Wadena set-up includes an angel and the words "Gloria in excelsis Deo" – Latin for "Glory to God in the highest."

 (Photo: Freedom from Religion Foundation)

(Photo: Freedom from Religion Foundation)

The Wisconsin-based foundation's letter says a "concerned citizen" contacted them, adding, "There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed."

The Wadena Pioneer Journal wrote back then that the foundation has pursued lawsuits in cases like this one.

The letter and complaint prompted the Wadena City Council to add a discussion over the nativity scene to its Tuesday meeting, the Brainerd Dispatch reported. The city's mayor, George Deiss, had previously told the paper it was "heartwarming" to get phone calls and letters from citizens, or have conversations on the street about how locals supported keeping the scene in place. It's been a longstanding tradition for the city.

One resident though, Tyler Rud, told WDAY he wants it taken down or moved not because he's against the religion – he just believes it's not the government's place to be involved.

Christianity in the US

Last year, amid similar stories across the country, Pew Research Center did a survey and found:

  • 44 percent of Americans said Christian symbols (such as a nativity scene) should be allowed on government property
  • 28 percent of U.S. adults said those symbols should only be permitted if they are accompanied by symbols from other religions, such as Hanukkah candles.
  • And 20 percent said there should be no religious displays on government property, period.

Earlier this year, Pew found about 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians – the highest number of Christians in any country in the world.

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