Michigan town removes nativity scene due to sustained FFRF effort

A Michigan town has removed an official nativity scene after a sustained, nearly decade-long effort on part of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A larger-than-life nativity scene had been on display in a prominent town bandstand for years in Menominee during the holiday season. It featured an infant Jesus lying in a manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph and others kneeling in reverence. The exhibit was front and center in the city park, set apart from other holiday figurines and was the only display lit up at night.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation had initially sent a letter to the city in 2007 objecting to the nativity scene. It was taken down briefly, then was put back up in 2009 as part of a new City Council policy. Since then, FFRF had been doggedly persistent, writing several letters over the years pointing out the constitutional problems with the display.

"It is unlawful for city of Menominee to maintain, erect or host this nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing one religion," the group pointed out in a 2011 letter. FFRF noted that the display breached the separation of church and state, embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It also violated longstanding legal precedent from the case County of Allegheny, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that a crèche display at a county courthouse unconstitutionally promoted a religious message. Furthermore, FFRF contended, such a blatant official endorsement of Christianity was deeply alienating for those who are non-Christian, a large and growing portion of the American population.

More recently, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent an open records request to the city of Menominee, asking for documents relating to the city's policy for nativity scenes on public property. After reviewing the city's policy, Jayne again asked the city to stop placing the nativity, reiterating that "the city placing this nativity scene endorses the religious aspects of a Christian holiday in defiance of established Supreme Court precedent."

FFRF's perseverance has paid off. A local television station has reported that the nontheistic organization's intervention was the reason that the city of Menominee finally changed its mind:

"It was determined by the city attorney that we were looking at a violation of our own policy and so the decision was made to remove it," explained Menominee City Manager Tony Graff. He said the Madison-based group the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent numerous complaints to the city. "They have sent letters to the city for many years in a row questioning the policy. This year, we decided to enforce the policy," said Graff. 

FFRF is delighted that it was ultimately able to bring some sense into city officials.

"Wow! That took some work on our part," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It shouldn't take a decade for folks to realize the truth, but better late than never."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog group with more than 24,000 members nationally, including 600-plus and a chapter in Michigan.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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