Officials in Toledo, Iowa think their public Nativity display is legal. They're wrong.
A stand-alone Christian display doesn't belong outside a fire station
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Earlier this month, atheist Justin Scott was driving through the city of Toledo when he noticed a Nativity display outside the local fire department.
As founder of the Eastern Iowa Atheists, he was well aware that government entities are limited in what they can do around the holidays: They can always put up no religious displays at all. They can create an open forum where different groups can apply to put up their own displays (which is what The Satanic Temple recently took advantage of in the Iowa Capitol). Or they can put up a holiday display that includes religious symbols from a variety of sources.
What they can’t do is promote Christianity and nothing else.
Yet that’s what they were doing.
So he alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which sent the city a letter last week letting them know about the problem. FFRF legal fellow Samantha Lawrence didn’t say the group would sue, only that this was a mistake that needed to be fixed.
… By prominently displaying this nativity scene on public property, the City abridges its duty to remain neutral towards religion.
Nativity scenes on public property are unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive. It is irrefutable that the nativity is a religious, Christian symbol. The best solution is to remove this nativity scene and discontinue hosting religious displays on public property altogether.
For what it’s worth, Justin Scott took a different approach. He didn’t mind if the Nativity stayed up, as long as it was modified:
“The Supreme Court ruled cities can put nativity scenes up as long as there are non-religious symbols sprinkled in there so it’s not so heavy on religion,” Scott said. “It does not need to come down, but it needs to be improved upon. My goal was not to take it down.”
Either way, both he and FFRF agreed that the current version of the display was illegal. The question was how the city would respond.
“It’s unfortunate that we even have to have this discussion. It was donated to the city and has been up every year for 15 to 20 years,” Sokol said. “It will be a discussion item for the council to decide if we put it back up or permanently relocate it… We have received a lot of positive comments and the feedback has been (to) keep it up. A lawsuit could be a possibility, but unfortunately, it seems too many groups want to sue about anything.”
Doing the wrong thing for a long time doesn’t make it right. FFRF isn’t threatening a lawsuit because it enjoys being litigious. (In fact, the group isn’t doing that at all.) The letter explained exactly why the city was doing something illegal and told them how to make things right. Sokol ought to be thanking FFRF, not treating them as an adversary.
For now, the city has moved the display off the fire department’s land to somewhere a block away—on private property.
On Friday, however, the city appeared to nudge people to attend Monday night’s city council meeting, where the issue would be further discussed. Their passive aggressive Facebook post didn’t say anything about how they screwed up, instead pinning the blame for the Nativity display’s move on FFRF:
It’s unclear what happened last night in part because the city, due to its smaller size, isn’t required by state law to livestream its meetings. But news report said that council members were “meeting with their attorneys to see if there is a legal way to make the display acceptable at the fire station.” One allegedly said, “The support is definitely there to keep the nativity set up,” as if this will be decided by popular vote.
I can save them some time. Their attorneys will say exactly what FFRF said because this isn’t very complicated and FFRF knows what it’s talking about.
Until that happens, though, articles about the display are full of emotional pleas from people who don’t understand how the law works, including the daughter of the person who designed that particular display:
The move of the nativity did get the attention of Becky Faircloth who has lived in the area her whole life. Her father made the display from wood, some 30 years ago. It was on private land for a long time before it moved to the [Toledo] Fire Station about 20 years ago.
“Friday morning I went to the City Hall to see who had asked for that to be taken down, and I was given the letter and the name of the person,” said Faircloth. “It was found out that this person doesn’t even live in our community. This person is from another community not even connected to our county.”
Even if 100% of the people in Toledo called themselves Christian, the city doesn’t get to function like a theocracy. It still has to obey the law. Justin Scott gets the law. FFRF gets the law. Becky Faircloth doesn’t, which is why she’s making the But He’s From Far Away argument. It won’t work.
The only question is when the city’s leaders will come to the same conclusion.
The irony in all this is while residents are demanding that this Christian display stay up, by itself, other people in Iowa are clamoring for The Satanic Temple’s display in the State Capitol to come down, even though the Capitol’s rules are already inclusive.