WEST ASHLEY, SC (WCSC) – A nativity scene removed Dec. 19 from the Station 12 fire house has been restored -- with company. The holiday display will also display a Menorah, a Kinara, Santa Clause, elves and reindeer, said fire department spokesman Mark Ruppel in a release issued Tuesday afternoon.
"The change to the display at the station was made to make clear that the display is a celebration of this holiday season. As in the past, the firefighters at the station want to celebrate this special season with the neighborhood. The Nativity scene is one part of the holiday celebration," said Fire Chief Thomas Carr.
Charleston's Fire Station 12 removed the nativity display after receiving a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that the display supports Christianity.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter dated Dec. 17 to Mayor Joe Riley and Fire Chief Thomas Carr asking that the display be removed. The letter says a local resident complained.
Ruppel said in an earlier letter the department was advised that local members of the Foundation found the nativity scene to be inconsiderate of religious views of those who are not Christian. Furthermore, said Ruppel, the Foundation demanded the nativity scene be removed as the department is a public organization, and by federal law cannot promote any religion exclusively.
However, according to members of Station 12, the scene was erected in a neighbor's yard after the firemen had received permission from the homeowner to do so.
While a statement from the City of Charleston legal department failed to comment on the pacing of the scene, they did say, "The City and the Fire Department fully support everyone's right to practice his or her religion in our city."
While lawyers examined the city's options, the decorations sat in a corner at the back of Station 12 while criticism poured in from residents.
The city, based on Constitutional law, could have opted for one of two outcomes. Either Station 12 would leave the nativity in storage, or it would be pulled out along with imagery from both religious and secular sources so the department could not be accused of taking sides in a religious debate.
However, the finer points of Constitutional law are not easy to grasp. Some Charlestonians are struggling to understand the city's decision to remove the nativity scene and equating it with the marginalization of the Christian faith.
"With our Christian faith, it's been pushed into a corner and I question why," said Sister Jane, a daughter of St. Paul's in Charleston.
Rebecca Kratz, a staff attorney for the Foundation, said some Christmas decorations are acceptable because they hold a secular significance as well. Further, the removing of a single religion's symbols from a government building is not an endorsement of atheism.
"Demonstrating neutrality toward religion or a religion does not mean that it's promoting atheism. That is totally illogical," said Kratz. "What you're not understanding is this is not about the free exercise clause. A religious symbol on government property invokes the Establishment Clause. It has nothing to do with free exercise."
Kratz said their organization was notified by a private citizen who said the decoration was on public property even though other residents said the scene was erected in a neighbor's private yard.
The city did not acknowledge the placement of the nativity scene, said Kratz.
A number of other Charleston fire stations have Christmas decorations, but those include Santa Claus and holiday lights.
"Charleston has a long, rich history of recognizing all religions and offering persons a place to be free from our government interfering with one's exercise of religion. We hope that the community will enjoy our celebration of this wonderful season and its diverse cultures," said Mayor Joe Riley.
A Constitutional Conundrum
The incident follows a trend nationwide that shows few people understand the Supreme Court's ruling on the display of holiday decorations on government property. The misunderstanding and the debate over decoration and religious displays on government property starts with the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from endorsing a religion exclusively – and that is what placing a nativity scene by itself on government property does.
In Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, the Supreme Court ruled that the placement of a large nativity scene at the Allegheny Courthouse was invalid as was the plaque stating a nearby Catholic Church had placed the manger scene there.
It was to be removed, ordered the Supreme Court. The specific religious view supported by the church was also being supported by the courthouse and the county through the display, the majority opinion stated.
Similarly in 2003, a massive display of the Ten Commandments positioned at an Alabama judiciary building was scrutinized and a federal judge ruled the display was in violation of the Constitution and ordered it taken down.
The case was appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but was ultimately knocked down because the display implicitly aligned the government with a particular religious view.
However, outside on the Courthouse grounds, a Christmas tree stood side-by-side with a menorah, which did not send the same message, said the Court. Citing a previous case, Lynch v. Donnelly, the inclusion of multiple religious symbols – both religious and secular – is permissible.
In Lynch, the Court ruled that a scene created in Pawtucket, RI, consisting of a nativity, a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree and a banner reading "Season Greetings" did not violate the Establishment Clause because of the mix of secular and religious imagery.
Tracey Amick and Matt Horton contributed to this story.