Atheist Group, Sheriff Fight Over Nativity Scene

| by Jimmy King
A Nativity Scene At Jefferson County CourthouseA Nativity Scene At Jefferson County Courthouse

An Illinois sheriff and an atheist group are engaged in a battle over a Nativity scene put on display at a local courthouse. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit, claims that Jefferson Country Sheriff Travis Allen violated the First Amendment by putting up the religious display.

FFRF holds that Allen violated the Constitution by setting up the display on public land, reports WSIL. The foundation wrote that Allen had “illegally endors[ed] religion on the County Courthouse lawn.”

Allen defended the display, claiming he put up the Nativity scene to celebrate the spirit of Christmas.

“I’m not sure how you could have a Christmas display without a Nativity scene because Christmas is a Federal holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ,” Allen wrote in a letter.

The FFRF replied that Allen’s display implied a government endorsement of Christianity.

“The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but may not observe it by suggesting to praise God for the birth of Jesus,” said Ryan Jayne, a representative of FFRF.

Allen said that the Nativity scene recognizes Christmas but does not force a particular religion upon anyone.

“I just don’t understand what’s happening to our country when we can no longer put a Nativity scene in a Christmas display without hurting somebody’s feelings,” said Allen.

The sheriff and legal advocacy group sparred over the exact distance of the Nativity scene from other holiday decorations, which determines whether the scene was part of a larger holiday display, reports WPSD.

Allen notes that pictures of the Nativity scene taken by FFRF do not include a “veterans tree” and other decorations surrounding the display. 

FFRF said the other decorations were technically not close enough to be part of the same display as the Nativity scene. "You can have a nativity scene mixed in with Santa's Workshop, and Reindeer, and all of these other things, and then we wouldn't have complained about it," Jayne told WPSD.

“At least in Illinois, 10 feet is enough to where it’s not part of a display,” said Jayne.

This is not the first time the FRFF and Jefferson County sheriffs have clashed. The FRFF also threatened legal action after “In God We Trust” was put on Jefferson sheriffs’ cars.

Sources: WPSD, WSIL / Photo credit: WPSD

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