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New nativity scene

The City of Woodland on Tuesday moved its Nativity display from city property at Horseshoe Lake Park to private land after receiving complaints from citizens about displaying religious iconography on public land.

“We began receiving complaints concerning the display early last week ... that the nativity was a religious display and, as such, was not allowed to be erected on public property, using public resources,” according to a post on the city’s Facebook page by Mayor Will Finn.

After consulting with the city attorney, Finn said he decided to move the scene next to a house at the corner of Buckeye and Goerig streets. The lawn space was donated by the property owner.

City Manager Peter Boyce said Tuesday the Nativity scene has been put up along Davidson Avenue adjacent to Horseshoe Lake Park for decades. The city received about five complaints about it this year, he said.

“As far as I know, these have been the first complaints the city’s received,” Boyce said.

“I appreciate that many City employees and community members did not want the Nativity moved,” Finn said in the post. “But I also appreciate that with public resources comes public responsibility. I personally see the Nativity as a symbol of Christmas and feel comfort when seeing it displayed. However, I had to make the decision as the Mayor.”

And, Finn added, the scene is now more visible in its new location than it was previously.

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Boyce said the city is conferring with its attorney to determine what to do about the scene in the future, but “the main concern everyone has is ... to make sure it’s still displayed and in a good spot where people are able to view it.”

Jeff Leuthold, the landowner who is hosting the Nativity scene, could not be reached for comment.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion. But in Lynch v. Donnelly, a 1984 case involving a display of a Nativity scene in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the city had not violated the Establishment Clause.

In that case, the high court found that certain “passive” public displays of religion do not violate the Establishment Clause as long as they have “legitimate secular purposes” and do not directly endorse or disprove a particular religious message or “excessively entangle” the government with religion.

However, in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, a 1989 case also involving a Nativity scene, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a Nativity display did violate the establishment clause because it included a banner that read, Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest). The “angel’s words endorse a patently Christian message: Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ,” according to the majority decision.

“Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus,” the opinion concluded.

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