A Nativity scene displayed in front of Chipley's City Hall has prompted a national organization to demand its immediate removal.
The birth of Jesus – central to the Christian faith – is depicted in a series of wooden figures erected on the front lawn of the municipal complex on U. S. Highway 90.
According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based organization that claims 20,000 members nationwide, the display is a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of the separation of church and state.
"The government cannot endorse one religion over another and it can't endorse religion over non-religion," Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney for the foundation, told News13. "Erecting a display with a message that's central to the Christian religion can only be seen as an endorsement of that message."
In a December 6 letter to Chipley Mayor Linda Cain, Seidel called the display "… a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faith and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship."
Seidel said Nativity scenes should be erected by churches, not governments, and recommended the city sell its display. "The government has no business taking a side on any religious issue whatsoever," he said.
Anne Chenault, a Chipley resident, said she loves the Nativity scene. "We're not forcing anybody to come down here and look but it's there if you want to come see it," she said. "We think it represents the majority of the beliefs of the people that live here."
Seidel said Chenault's view is common, but flawed. "To suggest that the government could violate rights simply because the majority are Christian is nonsense," he said, citing statistics indicating more than 2 million Floridians are nonreligious and more than 2.7 million are not Christian. "The Bill of Rights exists to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority."
In a December 8 written statement, Mayor Linda Cain blamed Randal Seyler, editor of the Washington County News, for bringing the matter to the FFRF's attention. Cain wrote that she overheard Seyler say the Nativity scene was "unconstitutional and should be removed" during a city workshop on December 5.
In an email sent the day after the workshop to Michelle Tagert, City Attorney, Seyler wrote that he had contacted a FFRF attorney and learned "… it's probably not kosher for the city to own and display a nativity scene on public property." The foundation's attorney, upon learning of Chipley's display, said he would write a letter to the city, Seyler wrote.
The FFRF's Seidel said "a citizen" notified the organization of the city's display.
Nicole Barefield, the newspaper's publisher, issued her own statement Monday and denied the mayor's allegations, as well as reports that the newspaper's attorneys had demanded removal of the display. "Neither the editor nor any representative of the newspaper or Halifax Media has made nor supported such a request [and] we most certainly do not desire the removal of the Nativity scene," Barefield wrote.
The city added a decorated Christmas tree to the lawn next to the Nativity scene Monday morning. Mayor Cain called the addition of a non-religious component to the city's display an attempt to "satisfy the dissatisfied."
"That's probably not going to be enough to fix it," Seidel said. "When it's clearly done in response to a letter pointing out that this is illegal, it also doesn't mitigate the religious message as much as the government would hope." The city should either remove the Nativity scene or allow anyone to display anything they want on the City Hall lawn, he said.
The FFRF will await an official response from the city before deciding whether additional action is necessary. The decision would also be based on feedback from the citizen who brought the matter to the foundation's attention, Seidel said.
The Chipley City Council is scheduled to meet at 6:00 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
"I will be at the meeting with my Bible," Councilwoman Karen Rustin said. "The display is not coming down."