City of Toledo removes fire station nativity scene after receiving complaint

Potential action to be discussed during tonight’s council meeting

T-R PHOTO BY MICHAEL D. DAVIS — The nativity scene in front of the Toledo Fire Station, pictured last week, was suddenly taken down Friday after the city received a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

TOLEDO — The longtime nativity scene on the lawn of the Toledo Fire Department was suddenly taken down Friday.

The City of Toledo made the move after receiving a letter from Samantha Lawrence with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis. In a Friday Facebook post, the city posted the letter, and wrote that people can attend the Toledo City Council meeting on Monday to voice their opinions about the matter. Some private property owners in town subsequently offered to relocate the nativity scene to their land, and a commenter indicated it had been moved a block south as of Friday afternoon, which Mayor Brian Sokol later confirmed.

“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.”

The letter requests the nativity be removed out of respect for the First Amendment and for the diversity in Toledo. By having the display on public property, the letter claims the city is not adhering to religious neutrality.

“Nativity scenes on public property are unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” the letter states. “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.”

The FFRF was notified of the nativity scene by Justin Scott, the founder of Eastern Iowa Atheists. Scott said he is not a Toledo resident, but noticed the display as he drove through town on his way to an archery competition in Tama.

When reached by the T-R on Friday, Scott was unaware the nativity was no longer on the lawn. He said he was not interested in getting the display taken down.

“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.”

He suggested displays such as one depicting Santa Claus or some candy canes could be used. Scott said he called the Toledo City Hall to inform them about the First Amendment violation.

“I said someone could sue the city and they would win, that they are liable for a tremendous amount of money,” he said.

Scott said he was told to fill out a complaint form with the city, and he insisted it was a situation that should be acted upon in a timely manner. His warnings were not well received, he said. Scott was told the nativity had been there for years, and it was donated. That is all great, he said, but non-religious displays need to be added. Despite his actions, Scott said he is a fan of Christmas.

“I know I’m a godless heathen, but this is a special time,” he said.

It was after speaking with the city that Scott reached out to FFRF to make them aware of the situation.

Scott said society has changed, becoming more secular, and people are withdrawing from religion.

“More people are saying religion is not for them, and they are finding morality in other ways,” he said.

Scott added even a larger number of Christians are adhering to the separation of church and state, not wanting the government to be involved in their religion, which is something private.

He referenced two United States Supreme Court cases in his reasoning of believing the nativity to be a First Amendment violation — Lynch v. Donnelly and Allegheny v. ACLU.

The Pittsburgh nativity scene in the 1989 Allegheny v. ACLU case was found to be unconstitutional because of the presence of the words “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.” However, justices also determined not all religious celebrations on government property are a Constitutional violation.

The 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly centered around the nativity display in Pawtucket, R.I. The justices ruled 5-4 that the display did not violate the Constitution as the nativity also had a secular purpose.

In the opinion of Chief Justice Warren Burger he wrote, “Here, whatever benefit there is to one faith or religion or to all religions, is indirect, remote, and incidental; display of the creche is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the Congressional and Executive recognition of the origins of the Holiday itself as ‘Christ’s Mass,’ or the exhibition of literally hundreds of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums.”


Contact Lana Bradstream at 641-753-6611 ext. 210 or lbradstream@timesrepublican.com.


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