Mayor Pulls Nativity, Then Reinstates It

Mount Vernon (Ohio) Mayor Richard K. Mavis said on a radio call-in show that he was eliminating the Nativity scene from the city’s public square this Christmas season to avoid controversy.

The switchboard lit up. People were upset. By the afternoon, after consulting with legal experts, the mayor went back on local radio station WMVO and said the Nativity scene would be displayed after all.

Tuesday’s fuss over the display of religious Christmas decorations on the historic square of the Knox County seat might have come unusually early this year.

But it is a reminder of a debate that reverberates every year across Ohio, from state parks to cities.

Is it appropriate and legal for governments to display the manger, baby Jesus, and Mary and Joseph on public land at Christmas, or is it an unlawful violation of the separation between church and state?

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld government-sponsored Nativity scenes when they are displayed in context with other, secular symbols of the Christmas holiday such as Santa Claus, reindeer and a tree.

That is what Mount Vernon now plans, Mavis said yesterday.

The Mount Vernon Nativity scene has been displayed for years in the traditional, conservative community about 40 miles northeast of Columbus. It’s a cherished part of the Christmas celebration, city Councilman John Fair said yesterday.

Fair said the mayor told the council late last year that he had received a complaint about the display. “I said, ‘Fine, let the person sue us.’

I think other people agreed.”

Mavis said two Knox County residents complained to him last year that the Nativity scene was unconstitutional. The city law director agreed because it was a stand-alone display and that is why the mayor initially decided against displaying it this year.

Tuesday morning, a city worker moved the Nativity scene to Mount Vernon Nazarene University, where it was to be displayed this year. E-mails circulated immediately that the Nativity scene had been moved, and someone called in to the radio show to ask whether the rumors were true.

“I said yes. That lit up the switchboard,” Mavis said.

Mavis said he changed his mind after doing some research. Officials in Lancaster and Delaware told him that their Nativity scenes are constitutional because they incorporate secular holiday decorations in the same spot.

Other central Ohio communities have dealt with Nativity challenges.

Reynoldsburg in 2006 skirted controversy by ending its tradition of including a Nativity scene in its municipal holiday display, leaving Frosty the snowman and Santa Claus by themselves.

Whitehall temporarily removed its Nativity scene outside city hall last year after someone complained to the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The Nativity scene is lawful because it’s part of an overall holiday display that includes secular decorations, and it will be back this season, Whitehall Mayor John Wolfe said yesterday.

“It is kind of bogus, but it would probably pass constitutional muster these days,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, of such displays.

“It depends on the circumstances, and where it is,” she added, noting that another U.S. Supreme Court ruling disallowed a Nativity scene, even though it included a menorah and a Christmas tree, because it was placed too close to the entrance of a county government building in Pittsburgh.

Gov. Ted Strickland, an ordained Methodist minister, ordered Christian creches back into two state parks last year while rejecting efforts by Zoroastrians and pagans to add their own, nontraditional holiday displays.

“The governor believes that Nativity scenes are an established and appropriate part of our American holiday displays, and he does not believe that holiday displays at state parks need to come down,” spokesman Keith Dailey said.

Town Drops Christmas From Parade, Company Withdraws

A famed fireworks company is pulling out of a holiday boat parade because “Christmas” was dropped from the event’s name.

Fireworks by Grucci won’t lend its sparkle to Patchogue’s Nov. 23 parade — decorated yachts on the Patchogue River — because the organizers have renamed it the Patchogue Holiday Boat Parade. It was the Patchogue Christmas Boat Parade last year, when the Grucci company donated $5,000 worth of fireworks.

The company’s vice president, Philip Butler, who has criticized the secularization of Christmas in the past, said parade organizers were “using all the themes of Christmas and plagiarizing all those themes.”

Organizers in the town on Long Island, near New York City, said the parade has had several names over its roughly 15-year existence. The name was changed again this year after complaints that the use of “Christmas” seemed to make the parade less inclusive.

“When I think about fireworks, I don’t think about Christmas anyway,” Mayor Paul Pontieri said.

Denver Allows Pumpkin Sales, But Not Christmas Trees

With the struggling economy, many Denver churches are looking for new ways to raise money.

Ubiquitous pumpkin patches in church parking lots are one example.

But some churches want to know why, if they can sell pumpkins, they can’t sell Christmas trees.

City legal analysts said it’s a gray area in the city ordinances because of zoning issues.

At Calvary Temple, the pumpkin profits help pay for children’s programs, and after a decade of selling during the fall, the church decided to try out Christmas trees in the winter.

But Pastor Todd Walker said a city inspector told them they needed a permit to sell trees because the church is in a residential area.

Denver Council member Charlie Brown is proposing a clarification that would allow occasional church sales.

“Pumpkins were classified as agricultural, therefore they could sell them. Christmas trees were not. This is the silliness of the ordinance,” said Brown. “If they’re allowed to sell pumpkins now, why should they not be allowed to sell Christmas trees? I mean, there is kind of a connection there.”

In the Mayor-Council meeting Tuesday, though, some City Council members expressed concern that the proposal is too broad and would invite too many sales in residential areas.

AFA Launches “It’s Ok to Say Merry Christmas” Campaign

A major conservative Christian group defending “family values” said Saturday, October 18, it has launched a campaign to counter attempts by companies and individuals to “ban” Merry Christmas greetings. The move comes shortly after at least five chaplains were fired for praying in “Jesus name,” adding to concerns among evangelical Christians that speaking about Jesus Christ outside church gatherings is becoming increasingly difficult in the United States.

“It’s hard to believe that there are companies and individuals who want to ban “Merry Christmas” and replace it with “Holiday Greetings” because, they say, they don’t want to offend anyone,” said Donald E. Wildmon, Chairman of the American Family Association (AFA).

He said his organization has launched ‘Project Merry Christmas’ which includes printing buttons and glossy stickers with the text: “It’s OK to say Merry Christmas !”

“Christians can take a stand and proclaim to our communities that Christmas is not just a winter holiday focused on materialism, but a “holy day” when we celebrate the birth of our Savior. We can do it in a gentle and effective way by wearing the ‘It’s OK to say Merry Christmas’ button,” Wildmon said.

The action seems part of a wider attempt to defend evangelism and open talk about Jesus Christ in America, following outrage among Christian groups that the governor of the American state of Virginia, Governor Tim Kaine accepted the allegedly forced resignation of five Virginia State Police Chaplains after they prayed publicly “in Jesus’ name.”

Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty reportedly enforced a strict “non-sectarian” prayer policy at all public gatherings, censoring and excluding Christian prayers. He then accepted the resignation of five chaplains who said thet refused to deny Jesus “or violate their conscience” by “watering down” their prayers.

House Republican Leader Morgan Griffith and Republican Delegate Charles W. Carrico issued statements defending the chaplains, questioning Governor Kaine’s role in terminating the chaplains. They vowed to introduce legislation “protecting police chaplains’ right” to pray according to their own conscience.

Governor Kaine suggested he himself was being persecuted by the politicians. “It is disappointing that Delegate Griffith would make such a political attack on Governor Kaine about his faith,” his office said in published remarks.

AFA’s Wildmon said his group’s Project Merry Christmas may open doors for the Gospel. “Some might think simply wearing a button or displaying a Glossy Sticker is a small thing, but God can use small things to make a big point, and to create opportunities to share the Good News. And what a great time to do that at Christmas,” he said.

Democrat Accused of Voting “Present” on Christmas

For the second time in a week, Republican Anne Northup has criticized U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat, for failing to support a 2007 federal resolution honoring Christmas.

Northup, 60, who is seeking to regain Louisville’s 3rd District congressional seat that she lost to Yarmuth two years ago, mentioned the vote yesterday in a meeting with The Courier-Journal editorial board.

She also questioned Yarmuth about it Friday in a debate at the Louisville Forum.

“I don’t know why he didn’t vote for Christmas,” she said in yesterday’s interview with the editorial board which was broadcast live on the newspaper’s Web site. She noted Yarmuth previously had voted for resolutions honoring Muslim and Hindu religious observances.

Yarmuth, 60, said yesterday Northup’s comments — coming nearly a year after the vote and about three weeks before the election — “seem less a sincere concern than a pure political attack.”

He said he voted “present” instead of in favor of the December 2007 Christmas resolution because he thought it “failed to properly honor a sacred religious holiday,” according to a statement from spokesman Christopher Hartman. Yarmuth was one of eight House members who voted present.

Yarmuth offered a similar explanation Oct. 10 before the Louisville Forum, where Northup used her single chance to question her opponent to ask him about his vote on the Christmas resolution.

“You were there but you couldn’t bring yourself to vote for that resolution,” Northup said.

Yarmuth, appearing exasperated, said he voted present to protest what he thought was a resolution that trivialized Christmas because it followed “meaningless” resolutions, such as one designating “Watermelon Month” and another creating “National Marina Day.”

“When we had much more serious problems to deal with, I decided to vote present as a way to protest,” he said.

Resolutions honoring people or events are common in Congress.

Yarmuth later issued a letter of apology to constituents, saying his vote of present on Christmas — while voting in favor of resolutions such as the one honoring Ramadan, the Islamic holy month — was not meant to slight other religions as less important.

Yarmuth used his single question to Northup at the debate to ask her about her proposal to allow private investment of some Social Security funds.

Northup yesterday told the editorial board she was skeptical of Yarmuth’s “various explanations” on the Christmas vote and said she believes it shows he’s “too liberal.”

“There are some people who feel that Republicans and Christians and Evangelicals are somehow all aligned and he’s on the other side,” she said.

Northup insisted her criticism about the Christmas vote has nothing to do with the fact the Yarmuth is Jewish, saying “No, no, no!”

Neither Northup nor a campaign spokesman could be reached late yesterday.

Yarmuth, in his letter last year to constituents explaining his vote, said he is very respectful of Christians and Christmas.

“I’ve celebrated Christmas all my life and some of my best memories both as a child and a parent are of waking up Christmas morning and unwrapping presents under our family tree,” it said.