Charleston Brouhaha Over FFRF’s Lighted Cross, Nativity Complaint

A Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint on behalf of the Foundation’s South Carolina members about a Christian nativity scene and Latin cross at Charleston Fire Station No. 12 had the city in a tizzy.

After a member notified FFRF that the station had put up a Christian display this year, as it had done in previous years (something other Charleston fire stations hadn’t done), Foundation Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote the city to complain: “Displaying this inherently religious symbol on the rooftop and lawn of a city-run firehouse unmistakably sends the message that the City of Charleston endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display. When the City displays this nativity scene, it places the imprimatur of the city government behind the Christian religious doctrine.”

The letter to Mayor Joe Riley and Fire Chief Thomas Carr noted that the violation had been recurring since at least 2004 despite complaints over the years by the Foundation and other civil liberties groups. Initially this year, reported the Foundation’s complainant, a creche was put up, but without last year’s illuminated cross atop the firehouse.

After the Foundation faxed its Dec. 17 letter to the city, the cross reappeared in a new location by the station’s front door, necessitating the need for another letter:

“The firehouse is clearly marked as ‘Charleston Fire Station No. 12,’ which allows all passersby to identifity it as a city building,” the letter said. “Its hosting of a powerful sectarian symbol cannot be seen as a traditional decoration of the holiday season, but instead can only be a message of support for Christianity.”

After receipt of the second letter, the Foundation received an e-mail Dec. 21 from Susan J. Herdina, assistant corporation counsel for the City of Charleston Legal Department. The e-mail said: “The Fire Department has advised me that the Nativity Scene at Fire Station 12 and the cross on the firehouse roof have been removed. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.”

The city released a statement: “The Supreme Court has said that the United States’ Constitution prohibits governments from taking any action that appears to promote one religion over another. The creche is the universal symbol of Christianity, and therefore, based on the law, it was removed from the fire station. The city and the Fire Department fully support everyone’s right to practice his or her religion in our city.”

But on Dec. 22 the nativity scene returned, surrounded by secular trimmings to allegedly comply with a Supreme Court ruling that permits manger scenes on public property if they’re part of an overall “secular” Christmas display. The Foundation noted the “sham” quality of this too-little, too-late action, obviously taken to ensure a manger scene stayed at the fire station at Christmas time.

By Dec. 23, the city told Kratz it would “permanently” leave the lighted cross beside a memorial to Charleston firefighters who died in a June 2007 fire. A photo taken at the time of the initial complaint showed the cross leaning against the small memorial near the firehouse entrance.

According to Kratz, the cross on display “is, and always has been, erected and maintained as a Christmas decoration at Fire Station No. 12. In fact, the cross was only put up on Dec. 17 this year, a day after the nativity scene was erected. Claims that this illuminated cross, which graced the firehouse rooftop last year, is part of a memorial to fallen firefighters is disingenuous. The only reason for displaying this cross at this time of year is to convey an endorsement of Christianity. That message violates the First Amendment.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, added, “What does a lighted cross on a lawn in the South conjure up? What a message! We are conferring with attorneys because our local complainants are so offended by this emblem of Christianity being posted permanently at the entrance to a city fire station.”

Since the complaint was made public, the Foundation has been deluged with two-and-a-half days of harrassing phone calls and e-mails from people who say they’re from South Carolina, said Gaylor.

“They are surely a poor advertisement for Christianity. They just don’t get the fact that the government cannot promote personal religious beliefs. Put crosses and manger scenes on church property or private lawns. They don’t belong on public property.”

Action Alert
The media, mayor and fire station in Charleston have been extremely unsupportive of the separation of church and state so far. There have been several editorials and columns against the Foundation (see Dec. 22 and Dec. 23), negative letters to the editor, hateful (and as of today lewdly perverse) phone calls to the Foundation from residents of Charleston, and public appearances by the city’s mayor rejoicing over the nativity scene being returned to the lawn of the fire station. The station and city have created a sham remedy by belatedly putting up a few secular decorations along with the overtly Christian symbols (the nativity scene and cross—both of which are still predominantly displayed).

Please help balance the anti-secular Christian outcries in Charleston. The mayor, fire chief, and local paper need to hear from voices of reason who believe in upholding the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Let them know you disagree with the nativity going back up and with a lighted cross being the only visible symbol at night from a city-owned fire station.

To have a letter to the editor considered for publication, keep letters under 150 words and provide your full name, address and phone number. For maximum effectiveness, write as an individual, not as a member of FFRF and not as someone responding to this action alert. Please do not forward our action alert to the recipients!

Thomas Carr
Fire Chief
City of Charleston Fire Department
46 1/2 Wentworth St
Charleston SC 29401

Mayor Joe Riley
80 Broad Street
Charleston SC 29401

Post and Courier
Letter to the Editor
134 Columbus St.
Charleston SC 29403

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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