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Officials Refuse to Back Down in Battle With Atheists Over Florida City's Nativity Scene


"Erecting a display with a message that's central to the Christian religion can only be seen as an endorsement of that message."

An atheist activist group is demanding that a Florida city remove a nativity scene from public property.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a church-state separatist group, has insisted that the creche be immediately taken down from the grounds of Chipley City Hall in Chipley, Fla., charging that it represents a violation of the separation of church and state.

The organization wrote a letter on Dec. 6 to Mayor Linda Cain airing its grievances.

"The government cannot endorse one religion over another and it can't endorse religion over non-religion," Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the group, told WMBB-TV. "Erecting a display with a message that's central to the Christian religion can only be seen as an endorsement of that message."

The city owns the nativity scene -- something that Seidel also said is inappropriate, so he recommend they sell it to a private party. A decision hasn't reportedly been made on this front, though one local man did offer to purchase the nativity and donate it back to the city council.

Many locals support the scene's presence at Chipley City Hall.

Resident Anne Chenault told WMBB-TV that she enjoys the nativity and that those who dislike it are not forced to embrace its sentiment.

"We think it represents the majority of the beliefs of the people that live here," she said.

Many Chipley residents showed up to a city council meeting on Tuesday evening to show their support for the nativity and to fight back against attempts to have it removed from the Chipley City Hall grounds.

"We as a country have given our rights away," said Council Member Karen Rustin, according to WMBB-TV. "We have been giving our rights away for years and it's about time that communities and church leaders all get together and start taking our country back."

Many are charging that it was the Washington County News, a local newspaper, that brought the nativity to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's attention, however the newspaper attempted to clear up some confusion surrounding a reporter's motivation for reaching out to the group.

"Neither the editor nor any representative of the newspaper or Halifax Media has made nor supported such a request (and) we most certainly do not desire the removal of the nativity scene," publisher Nicole Barefield said in a statement.

WJHT-TV reported that Randal Seyler, a reporter with the outlet, originally contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to learn if the nativity's presence is constitutional.

Seyler published an apology on Dec. 9, explaining that he had contacted the organization, among others, out of curiosity and did not intend to spark controversy over the nativity.

"It was not my plan to take down the city’s nativity scene nor cause anyone else to do so," he wrote, noting that the controversy has taken on a "life of its own."

The city added a decorated Christmas tree on Monday to try and balance the nativity with a secular symbol, though it's not likely to satisfy atheist activists.

Council members have so far pledged to keep the nativity in place, so it looks like they could be in for a legal battle with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.



Featured image via WMBB-TV


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