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EDITORIAL: You gotta fight for your nativity scene in the U.S.

By: The Gazette editorial board
December 23, 2016 Updated: December 23, 2016 at 9:03 am
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To celebrate Christmas without bowing to mean-spirited activists, heed the advice of a powerful 1980s hip-hop band.

"You gotta fight for your right to party," implored the Beastie Boys.

The fight is on throughout "flyover" country, where small towns continue celebrating Christmas with Nativity scenes in public parks and on other municipal space. A handful of activists have tried for years to censor the sights and sounds of a holiday they don't like, working to eliminate traditional public displays that began with the country's founding.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a mom-and-pop outfit in Wisconsin, each year sends threatening letters to municipalities that allow nativities on public space. Over the years we've seen community leaders shudder in fear, removing displays to avoid nuisance lawsuits by the litigious publicity mill.

The foundation's annual buzzkill may be ending. The Associated Press reports a growing number of community's are fighting for their rights, exercising the advice of former heavy metal rockers Twisted Sister: "We're not gonna take it, anymore."

"Officials in St. Bernard, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, ignored a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and opted to keep in place a Nativity scene displayed in front of City Hall," the AP reports.

Matt Staver, head of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel law firm, said more municipalities are "digging in after learning their rights."

In some towns that refuse to remove nativities, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has resorted to placing its displays that feature founders James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Statue of Liberty surrounding the Bill of Rights in a manger.

It's an odd way to express the belief that mangers should be banished from government space. Only the First Amendment has any nexus to the topic, and it clearly forbids government from actions that "prohibit the free exercise" of religion. It doesn't say "free exercise on private property." It says "free exercise."

Thomas Jefferson, who inspired James Madison to write the First Amendment, later attended Baptist worship services in the House of Representatives. Clearly, he did not intend the law to scour the sights and sounds of religion from public space.

The AP gave multiple examples of town governments ignoring the Freedom From Religion Foundation:

- McClave is leaving a Nativity near its park.

- Belen, N.M., raised $50,000 for a festival in support of the nativity after receiving a threatening letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The community, with a population more than 70 percent Hispanic, has vowed to defend the display against challenges.

"The Nativity scene not only represents the history of our town, it represents our culture," said Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova. "It's here to stay."

- The Rust Belt cities of Franklin, Penn., and St. Bernard, Ohio, are ignoring letters from the foundation and keeping their displays intact. In eastern Pennsylvania, officials in Bethlehem are also ignoring demands to remove a Nativity.

These communities and others are defending the free exchange of beliefs, traditions and customs. In the U.S., we are free to celebrate all assortment of religious, secular and anti-religious sentiments in public and private.

The First Amendment does not grant freedom "from" sights and sounds of religious and cultural tradition. It does exactly the opposite, protecting freedom "of" religion. That means the baby Jesus should be on display this time of year, in public and private, for centuries to come.

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