Keeping it “stable”: the manger controversy in my hometown.

My hometown lies an hour’s drive northwest of Pittsburgh.  Every year at the approach of Christmas a manger scene would be set up on the front lawn of the town hall.  Year after year.  For 50 years.

The religious display went up as routinely as all of the other decorations at Christmas time.  Borough workers would set up the Nativity right along with stringing up colored lights on main street fronting the town hall.

The main street is called Lawrence Avenue.  It would always look so festive in December.  People would go shopping.  They’d bring their kids.  They’d stop in front of the Nativity scene.

During those years, Ellwood City was very much a predictable community:   mostly white, middle-class, church-going.  Even today, with a declining population, it remains mainly:  white, middle-class, church-going.  Over 60% claim to belong to a denomination.  Of those 60%, more than 50% are Roman Catholic.  The two most populous Protestant denominations are Presbyterian and Methodist.

Year after year, the Nativity scene would be set up.  The manger and stable with the life-size figures of the Baby, Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, Cow, Sheep and Shepherds would be wrestled into place by city employees.

There was one synagogue in town.  The Jewish community seemed simply to bear with the crèche.  Some owned businesses right there on Lawrence Avenue.  Across the street from their stores would be the Jesus figure positioned on the front lawn of the borough building.

I suppose for the sake of neighborliness in the old hometown, they simply chose to bear with it.  People all knew each other.  If you didn’t know somebody, you at least knew the last name.  You had gone to school with someone’s brother or sister.

The situation, however, changed.  Ellwood City changed.  The borough’s biggest employer, a U.S. Steel mill, closed.  So did another mill.  Both closed within six months of one another.  An exodus began.  It was the 1970s.

Ellwood City had enjoyed a peak population of nearly 13,000 during the heavily industrial years from the 1930s to the early 1960s.  By the 2000 Census, however, the town dropped from nearly 13,000 to just above 8,000.  The drain continued.  By the 2010 Census, the number had dropped below 8,000.

By this time, Lawrence Avenue–once festive with shops, stores, diners and banks–looked sadly still.  Nonetheless, on this eerily quiet street, the manger and figures continued to be set up by the borough government.  Residents said it wouldn’t seem like Christmas in Ellwood City without the Nativity.

Interestingly, though the population kept shrinking, the TYPE of population stayed pretty much the same:  white, middle-class, church-going.  The numbers were fewer.  There used to be three booming Roman Catholic churches.  Loss of people (and lack of priests) meant that the three congregations had to merge.  But the TYPE of people remained pretty much the same as it had always been in my hometown.

Which meant:  When a few  years ago an objection DID arise over the Nativity, a lot of people got up in arms.  They’d come to regard the manger as nostalgic.  With all of the negative change–loss of employment, loss of population, loss of businesses–here was something that stayed.  Every Christmas.  The Nativity–like the flag at Fort McHenry–“was still there.”

Indeed, sticking up for the creche became a combination of patriotism and religious righteousness:

*patriotism in that people had had enough of the decline of America.  We know our rights.  How can the minority tell the majority what to do?

*religious freedom in that people had had enough of removal of religion from public life in America.  No more prayer in the schools.  Now no more manger?!

All the worse, the objection to the Nativity wasn’t FROM anybody IN Ellwood City.  The objection came from outsiders–atheists, in fact!  The Freedom From Religion Foundation.  It’s based in Madison, Wisconsin.

In 2011, the organization contacted the borough government.  The religious display which had been set up by public employees on public property for 50 years–was being challenged.

The issue had to be taken up by the Borough Council a week before Christmas 2011.  In spite of heated remarks by the Mayor and some of the council members and many residents, the council voted 4-2 to remove the Nativity scene, starting with the following Christmas, 2012.

The four Council members who voted for the removal did so regretfully.  They knew the sentiment of residents.  Anger had been stoked by the Mayor, insisting that this was all about a basic American right.  “We won’t give up our religious freedom.”

The four council members, however, knew that the borough could not afford fending off the inevitable law suit had they gone along with what the most vocal in town clamored for,

Venomous remarks arose towards “The Gang of Four.”  They were called cowards.  They had caved in to an atheistic group.

Criticizing the four was all too easy.  After all, the complainers had no responsibility in the matter!  They faced no consequences.  THEY didn’t have to worry about costing the borough the thousands it didn’t have to spare in legal fees.  THEY were willing to defy the atheists.

In 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt was once asked about the claims being made by Wendell Wilkie–what he would do, what he wouldn’t do–in his campaign against her husband.  She remarked:  He has the freedom to say whatever he wants–he doesn’t have any responsibility!  He doesn’t have to make any decisions,

The problem with the decision in 2011 by the four Council members over the crèche is that–they had to take the heat for something their predecessors neglected doing 50 years previously.  All those years ago when the idea first arose to set up the manger scene on the front lawn of the municipal building–way back then was the beginning of the problem that erupted 50 years later.

There was only one reason that Nativity was set up in the first place all those years ago.  Ellwood City consisted mostly of the same type of people:  white, middle-class, church-going.  Who would object?  The manger went up.  It continued going up year after year.

Sensitivity towards their Jewish neighbors in town wasn’t what it could have been.  Sensitivity towards the propriety of the borough government putting up a religious display that only SOME in the town believed in–putting it up on public property, using public employees–wasn’t what it could have been.  But they did it because they COULD.  Nobody would object in that small town.

They did it because they knew they could get away with it.  And they DID get away with it, year after year.

This is a type of power play, and it is–frankly–a type of bullying.

And now some in town think they can STILL do it, because they claim to be the majority.

The controversy over the Nativity isn’t about freedom of religion.  Nobody is stopping anybody from going to church.  Nobody is stopping anybody from praying.  Nobody is stopping anybody from doing anything religious.  They are only being stopped from spending tax dollars on a display of religious belief that only SOME in the town hold.

The fact is, nearly 40% of the people in my hometown claim no religious affiliation at all.

But the loudest continue clamoring for their “religious freedom.”  And they have gotten downright petulant.  Okay, sure, they said, the Nativity figures will be removed from the front of the borough hall.  But–hah!–we’re going to set ’em right back up!  Somebody has donated a flat-bed truck.  We’re going to set up the figures on the back of that truck.  And that truck is going to be parked right there on Lawrence Avenue.  And guess precisely WHERE we’re going to park it?

You’d think Christmas would be a “bully-free zone.”


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