When Wisconsin's Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened to sue the city of Wadena, Minnesota, over a nativity scene on public property, lawsuit-wary council members voted to take the display down.
Town residents, who packed the November meeting in which the city council voted to remove the nativity, responded by putting up hundreds of nativity scenes on private lawns throughout the city of 4,100 residents.
“I just get another smile on my face every time I go by another nativity scene I haven't seen before,” resident Pamela Mertens told KMSP.
Born-again Christian Dani Sworski helped jump-start the effort by creating a Facebook page called "Wadena Nativity Display," which called on neighbors to put nativity scenes on their front lawns, according to KMSP.
A single resident's complaint to the Freedom From Religion Foundation sparked the threat of a lawsuit from the foundation's attorneys, Wadena Mayor George Deiss told Valley News LIVE.
"They were offended that we had put it out on city property," Deiss said, describing the nativity as a "tradition" that had been part of the city's holiday decorations in a public park for more than 40 years.
But placing a nativity scene — which depicts the birth of Jesus Christ, Christianity's central figure — violates separation of church and state, Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Patrick Elliot said. It was a letter from Elliot that prompted Wadena's leaders to vote for the nativity's removal.
"There are a number of traditions that should be stopped and those are ones that violate the Constitution," Elliot told Valley News LIVE. "So no matter how long they've been perpetuating this illegal display, now is the time to stop it. Now that they are aware of it."
Freedom From Religion Foundation has generated hundreds of headlines in recent months by threatening to sue more than 60 law enforcement agencies, mostly sheriff's offices, that have placed the national motto, "In God We Trust," on patrol cars. The organization also ramps up its efforts during the holiday season, threatening municipalities and school districts throughout the United States for allowing public prayers and religious-themed banners and displays on public property.
The group also places its own banners and "nativity" scenes — featuring images of the Founding Fathers surrounding the Statue of Liberty — in public places, such as in front of the Texas Capitol Building in Austin, Texas. The group's holiday banners celebrate the winter solstice and sometimes include messages telling passersby that neither gods nor devils exist.