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Mayor 'Seething' After Group’s Call to Take Down Nativity Scene That’s Been in a City Park for Decades

"Next will they be asking us to change our name?"

The holiday season might be a few months away yet, but a town in New Mexico has a permanent installation of the Nativity scene, a scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ that usually pops up around Christmas time.

Last month, the mayor of Belen received a letter about the scene that had him fuming.

Sent to him from an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Mayor Jerah Cordova was told that a "concerned local resident" took issue with the presence of the Nativity scene in a public park.

"My first reaction was seething anger," the mayor told KOAT-TV.

Cordova went on to say that he sees the Nativity, in this case, not a religious symbol but a piece of the town's history.

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"Our town was named Belen for a reason, because our founders wanted it to be named after Bethlehem and of course, what happened in Bethlehem was the birth of Christ, which is something we've expressed since our founding," he told the news station.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation believes the Nativity in a public place though violates a separation of church and state.

“Our purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church," the letter said, according to the Valencia County News-Bulletin.

"Even if Belen does indeed translate to Bethlehem, choosing the Nativity scene to represent Bethlehem is an explicitly religious choice," Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney with the foundation wrote in his letter, according to the newspaper. "This adopts Christian mythology to represent a name that itself is not inherently religious."

Seidel suggested the Nativity be moved to private property or church grounds.

The News-Bulletin reported that the Nativity was first erected in the park in 1992 by Philip Tabet and his family to honor his grandmother Theresa Tabet, who volunteered for the city. The nativity was moved and reinstalled in 2007 when the city constructed a plaza.

"This is part of our heritage," Philip Tabet told the newspaper. "I don’t think it’s right for organizations to be able to do this. I see no conflict whatsoever. I could see if there was preaching going on over there, but it’s a landmark."

Cordova told the News-Bulletin he expects the foundation to bring a lawsuit against the city for not removing the Navity, and it's something he said he is prepared to defend.

"Where does it stop?" Cordova told KOAT. "If we don't stand up for the Nativity scene in the heart of Belen, next will they be asking us to change our name?"

Watch the news station's report:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed lawsuits to have Nativity scenes removed from public property in the past.

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