The City of Dover's nativity scene is being displayed this year on the lawn of Grace Lutheran Church. The city decided to move the display rather than get into a legal battle with a group from Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacey Carmany, Tusco TV)
Dover, Ohio - City officials say they’ve moved a holiday nativity display onto private property to avoid a legal battle with an out-of-state group.
Mayor Richard Homrighausen says the city moved the display after a Wisconsin-based nonprofit threatened legal action if they continued to display it on public property.
“We decided to move it rather than incur substantial financial costs after receiving a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation on January 26th of this year citing the nativity scene and the 10 Commandments and the choir display being on city property,” he says.
The city had previously displayed the nativity in the public park on the corner of Third Street and North Wooster Avenue, by the Grace Lutheran Church. It now sits on the lawn in between the church and its outreach center.
The group’s Ohio attorney, Chris Line, says they sent the letter after a resident contacted them about the city’s holiday display and the 10 Commandments being on public property.
“We wrote to the city and let them know that we had a resident complain that they were feeling excluded by the city’s preference of Christianity by putting up a nativity scene, a Latin cross, which is a Christian religious symbol and having the 10 Commandments right there on city property. Our complainant felt that the city was endorsing and showing preference for Christianity,” he says.
Line says the city agreed to move both the nativity and the monument.
“The city wrote back to us in April letting us know that they would no longer be displaying any of these religious symbols on city property and that they were even moving the 10 Commandments off of city property to create a more inclusive environment for everyone in the city,” he says.
Grace Lutheran’s Pastor, Donald Rice, says the city contacted them shortly after receiving the letter and asked if they could display the nativity and the monument there. (The letter from the group and the city's response can be viewed through the links provided at the end of this story.)
“There had been an issue last summer with the 10 Commandment monument being on city property. Someone had drawn up a legal complaint against the city because the 10 Commandments were on city property and demanded that they be moved, so they moved the 10 Commandments from city property onto our church property,” he says.
The pastor says the city knew that they were also going to have to find a new home for their nativity scene, so they asked the church if they would be willing to display that as well.
“The mayor, the Director of Parks and Recreation, Scott Jerles, and the Service Director, Dave Douglas, approached us here at Grace if we might find some place to put the nativity scene, and we looked around our property, and we found that there was some green space between our Luther Hall and our Outreach Center, so we then consented that they could place it there, he says.
Rice says the monument was moved from the back of the same public park where the nativity was being displayed and onto private property in front of the main entrance of the church.
“They used to be hidden pretty much toward the back underneath trees. In fact, I don’t think most people even knew they were there, but apparently, someone found them and decided to make an issue of it, and so we moved it on our church property. Well, instead of being hidden, now they’re front and center right there on Third Street,” he says.
As for the choir display, Rice says the city covered up the cross that the group took issue with.
“There is no longer a cross with the choir, so it’s just an everyday, secular choir singing in front of some stained glass windows,” he says.
Line says he believes the city made the right choice.
“We’re glad that the city chose this course of action that includes everyone, and it really shows that the city cares about all of its citizens regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs,” he says.
Line says it’s hard to speculate about what might have happened had the city decided not to move the decorations, but said it could have potentially resulted in a lawsuit.
“Many courts have found that these displays on city property where it’s just a display promoting Christianity and that is the whole display, that that’s unconstitutional, and so the city could have been facing a lawsuit over those cases, but the city instead has done the right thing and chosen not to promote religion in violation of the Establishment Clause,” he says.
Homrighausen says such a battle could have been quite costly.
It depends on how long we fought it. With their track record of having lost only two cases, it didn’t seem very wise to move forward with litigation.
Homrighausen says it’s disappointing that an outside group would interfere with the town’s holiday traditions but not surprising.
“Unfortunately, that’s the day and age we live in.”
Rice says he was just glad they were able to help.
“Of course, you sort of grow dismayed over the constant barrage we get from the secular world to limit our religious expression, and my only reaction in this instance is that I am thankful that we had the place and we could accommodate so that those 10 Commandments could remain in the public eye and the same with the nativity scene. I’m just thankful that God has blessed us with this space and the opportunity to bear that witness,” he says.
Line says the group has no problem with religious decorations at churches or on private property.
“Nativities on private property are totally fine. Our issue here in protecting the separation of church and state is to ensure that public city property does not have religious displays and is not endorsing and promoting religion. On private property, private property owners are free to display whatever religious symbols or anything that they want,” he says.
STACEY CARMANY, TUSCO TV