The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, has threatened to sue the city of Belen, New Mexico, over a Nativity display in one of its public parks.
The foundation says it received a complaint about the Nativity scene from a citizen, which prompted an FFRF attorney to send a letter to the city in July.
The letter stated that, "It is unlawful for Belen to maintain a display that consists solely of a Nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing one religion.”
The Nativity display has been a staple of the plaza in Belen for 23 years, and residents of Belen have fiercely defended its presence as a part of the city and tradition. Belen is Spanish for Bethlehem.
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Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova sent a response to the foundation on Aug. 25, saying the Nativity scene is a "constitutional representation of the historical origin and meaning of the city's name.”
FFRF Co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor told KOB 4 that the foundation "would be interested at this point in potentially suing to move it to private property," adding that, "it was completely shocking because this is the first time I've ever heard of a violation where a Nativity display was up all year round."
"We think that he needs to be educated about the separation between religion and government and how he can’t see that having a year-long permanent Nativity display in a public park doesn't constitute endorsement of Christianity is beyond me,” Gaylor said.
Because the mayor has refused to move the Nativity scene, FFRF's next move may be to take legal action. But before the foundation can file a lawsuit, it needs local counsel and plaintiffs who reside in Belen.
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Meanwhile, residents of Belen have started a petition, set up a website to raise awareness for the issue, and set up a fundraiser on GoFundMe to prepare for the potential lawsuit.