A small Pennsylvania town has removed a Nativity scene from its borough building after a resident complained that the creche is offensive to non-Christians. And while town leaders say they don't like having to remove it, they say they are legally obligated.
WPXI in Pittsburgh reports Canonsburg Borough and its Manager Terry Hazlett received a written complaint last week from resident Megan Hartley who said the creche was disrespectful to citizens who aren't Christian and that it shouldn't be displayed at a government building.
“I think that it is highly disrespectful to the citizens of this Borough that are not Christian to have Christian iconography displayed on government property," she reportedly wrote, "a government that is supposed to represent all of the citizens, not just the majority.”
In response to the complaint, Hazlett asked the local Knights of Columbus chapter, which owns the scene and has been displaying it at the borough buiding for 57 years, to remove it. The group obliged, and has since relocated the creche to a nearby business.
That upset local Knights of Columbus member Robert Clark, who told the Observer-Reporter that the removal of the creche offends him.
“I think that we have to show tolerance to one another,” Clark said. “It’s disrespectful to my rights, too.”
According to the Canonsburg Borough website, a dozen people showed up at Monday night's council meeting to protest the move. There, town Mayor David Rhome said he has received several calls questioning why the creche was moved, and asked the council to reconsider.
That request was denied.
Council President Joe Milioto replied that the council took an oath to “uphold federal, state and local laws,” and referred the matter to Solicitor Patrick Derrico. Derrico reponded by denying to take up the case.
“I personally like the Christmas scene, and I am a member of the Knights of Columbus. Council must uphold the laws of the land," he said. "If council wants to spend their private money to fight this or if individual citizens want to take this up, that’s okay, but the Christmas scene should not be on public property."
"I didn't want to do this either, but didn't feel I had a choice. It's a separation of church and state issue," Hazlett told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We know what happened in Pittsburgh when they challenged it."
"I didn't feel we had a choice in the matter. If they took us to court, we would probably lose," he added. "It takes taxpayer money to defend yourself in court."
That sentiment is echoed by Mayor David Rhome. In an interview with The Blaze he said the town is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.While he believes the creche should be allowed, and says that his constituents want it there, the fact remains the courts have decided it cannot.
"In the world we live in, the courts dictate what we can do," he said. "The law is the law."
The law he's talking about refers to a relevant U.S. Supreme Court case that took place in another Pennsylvania town. In County of Allegheny vs. ACLU, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a nativity scene on the steps of the County Courthouse violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.
Rhome explained that Megan Hartley has complained about the creche in the past, but always after the Christmas season and always verbally. This time, she complained at the height of the season and put it in writing. When that happened, Rhome said, there was nothing the town could do to stop the removal. He said the town leaders met and decided together to remove the creche.
For now, Rhome's instructed Derrico to do additional research to see if there's anything the town can do to return the creche to its long-time home. But that could be a long shot.
"Merry Christmas," Rhome remarked as he ended his conversation with The Blaze, "if I'm even allowed to say that anymore."
Editor's note: Quotes from the town's mayor were added after he responded to The Blaze's request for comment post publication.