A Religious Right organization has regrettably managed to persuade a Michigan town to backtrack on its adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
A larger-than-life nativity scene had been removed from a Menominee, Mich., bandstand after a sustained, nearly decade-long effort on part of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The Liberty Counsel has convinced the town to put the nativity scene back up, along with secular symbols to make it seemingly legally compliant.
FFRF is severely disappointed at this subterfuge. At the same time, it appreciates Liberty Counsel implicitly acknowledging that Menominee's prior stand-alone nativity was indeed unconstitutional, as FFRF has been reminding the city since 2007. The Liberty-Counsel-instigated change will likely bring Menominee into technical compliance with the current state of the law, due to the "reindeer rule." This bizarre rule comes from an unfortunate 1984 Supreme Court ruling, Lynch v. Donnelly, and permits Christian nativities if secular trimmings of Christmas are included. But the sleight-of-hand is still highly insulting to non-Christians and nonbelievers.
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. 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. 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 did yield positive results — for a while. A local television station reported that the nontheistic organization's intervention was the reason that the city of Menominee had changed its mind.
FFRF is saddened that after all its right-minded legal persuasiveness, city officials were misled by a theocratic organization.
"After years of the town endorsing a stand-alone Christian display, the belated addition of a few ornaments does not mitigate the message of endorsement," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It's highly unfortunate."
Gaylor suggests the town open up the bandstand as a public forum, allowing all points of view to be represented, including irreligion.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog group with 25,000 members nationally, including 600-plus and a chapter in Michigan.