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.