Virginian Challenges Nativity Scene by Shelly Johnson (March 1996)

Asign placed by Foundation supporter and activist Alexander R. Gordon to help protect state/church separation in December was defaced and removed.

The struggle for constitutional respect and recognition began in December 1994 when Virginia’s Warren County Board of Supervisors declared a small-town courthouse lawn a historical “public forum” for the expression of individual ideologies. The board granted a permit for a lighted nativity scene to be erected in front of the public building.

Gordon first objected to the “tacky plastic display” with letters to the editor calling the display a clear violation of the First Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union regional chapter also wrote letters denouncing the creche, but no legal action was taken to force its removal.

When previous objections did not prevent the board from again permitting Dorothy Sullivan to display the nativity scene in December 1995, Gordon petitioned the board either to retract its decision declaring the lawn a public forum, or approve a permit for the display of a sign voicing Gordon’s opinion about religious displays on public property.

“I’m protecting the intent of those who wrote the Constitution. They believed that the separation of the church and the state is one of the most important concepts this country is built on,” Gordon told a Warren Sentinel reporter. “That alone is what has brought us 220 years of religious peace in this country.”

The county newspaper article detailed events of the Dec. 5 board meeting debating Gordon’s request.

Supervisor-elect James Jacobson–director of an organization defending the “rights of persecuted Christians”–suggested that the sign be allowed, but displayed after the nativity scene was removed.

“The public forum should not be used for acrimonious debate, but true expression of convictions,” Jacobson complained.

County attorney Douglas Napier, backed by the Attorney General’s office, warned the board that discrimination could be inferred if both displays were not concurrent.

One board member abstained from the vote. Although several remaining members made their reluctance known, they agreed to the dual display.

Gordon was pleased with the decision but stated, “unless a few like myself stand up for what Jefferson and Madison intended when they framed the Constitution, we’ll be overwhelmed by the Christian point of view.”

“It’s sad that it has to be like that, but I guess he has his right to freedom of speech too,” said Sullivan.

Gordon’s warning sign was erected on Dec. 15 saying, “Display of religious symbols on public protperty violates the First Amendment, U.S. Constitution,” followed by a quote from former President John F. Kennedy:

“I believe in an America where separation of church and state is absolute.”

The sign also carried “FFRF” as identification and the back displayed the slogan “State/Church: Keep Them Separate.”

During its first night the sign was removed by an unknown party and stashed behind the creche. Gordon promptly repositioned the sign and reported the incident to the town sheriff. The secular sign received front page publicity in the Dec. 21 edition of the local newspaper and remained untouched until Dec. 29 when it was discovered behind the courthouse, defaced with mud. The permit allowed the sign to be displayed though Jan. 2.

“Now I have some first-hand experience trying to see the law of the land enforced–something you folks have been doing for years,” wrote Ray Gordon.

A. R. Gordon, Jr., is a retired Air Force Colonel, former Navy oceanographer and world-class runner. He has been a member of the Foundation since 1983 and was a special donor to the Freethought Hall Fund. Mr. Gordon has “remained happily unchurched” since the age of ten and describes himself as an “atheistic humanist.” He is a devoted activist for state/church separation, population control, environmental protection and conservation, women’s rights and most liberal political and social causes. He performed graduate work in meteorology at the University of Chicago in 1942 and received an M.S. in oceanography at UCLA in 1948.

Freedom From Religion Foundation