A New Mexico city isn't backing down from a heated battle with an atheist activist group over the permanent presence of a nativity scene on public property, with the mayor of Belen issuing some harsh words for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Mayor Jerah Cordova told TheBlaze on Thursday that he's continuing to defend what he believes is a historical piece of art that reflects his city's colorful history, taking pointed aim at activists' handling of the contentious First Amendment debate.
"The FFRF has every right to believe what it wants. But so does Belen," he said. "The FFRF's tactics are designed to create conflict and division in communities across America. They stir up controversy where there had been none before for their own publicity and fundraising."
And he wasn't done there.
"I don't understand why anyone would want to belong to such a devious group," Cordova continued. "I'm grateful to live in Belen, where we have a closeknit and united community that doesn't put up with their style of bullying."
As TheBlaze previously reported, problems began in early August when the atheist group claimed that an unnamed local resident had complained over the nativity, and that the permanent display was illegally placed in the public square.
"It is unlawful for Belen to maintain a display that consists solely of a nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing one religion," the letter read, in part.
But Cordova — who repeatedly indicated in an email interview with TheBlaze that the city has no intent of removing it — explained that the nativity is a representation of the town's history, which is why it has been on display since 1992.
"The word Belen translates to Bethlehem and nativity. The nativity represents 275 years of Belen history and tradition (Belen was founded in 1740), and nativities have been placed in this area for decades without incident," he said. "We call it the Heart of Belen — sort of a town plaza — and the park in the plaza is called Theresa Tabet Park."
The park was dedicated to a local named Theresa Tabet back in 1992, at which point the permanent nativity was placed there using private funds; Tabet had previously placed nativities in the park for four decades.
Cordova said that the city's attorney wrote a letter back to the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Tuesday, rebuffing atheists' removal demands and doubling down in defense of the symbol.
"The response lays out our legal position, including why the display is allowable under the United States Constitution. The response said the city has no intent to move or remove the display," the major said. "We are awaiting a response from FFRF, which has indicated through local media that a lawsuit is their last resort."
Hundreds of residents are supporting the mayor, too, with a massive rally unfolding this past Sunday in defense of the 23-year-old nativity.
Cordova said that the rally, which was expected to draw in about 300 people, ended up seeing a crowd of 800, and that support is streaming in from the religious and nonreligious, alike.
There's even a grassroots group that has popped up called "Believe in Belen," which has launched a Go Fund Me account as well as other activities in an effort to defend the nativity display.
"We have gotten support from a diverse group of locals — people of faith, the nonreligious, and even some atheists have stood up to say the FFRF is wrong on this one," he said. "Belen has bipartisan support, because for locals this is about history and tradition, not politics. Residents have begun to display new nativities in town."
While Cordova said that the city of Belen is open to hearing all solutions, he said that officials will not "erase or change historical facts about our little New Mexico city simply because a group out of Wisconsin" wants them to.
Read our initial report about the Belen nativity scene controversy here.
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