FFRF complaint behind Nativity move

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Ian Gronau | December 20, 2013

ELKHORN -- For years, a traditional Nativity display has occupied the corner of Wisconsin and Walworth streets on the square in downtown Elkhorn. So it came as a surprise to many residents that the display was moved this year to a less conspicuous location.

After an Elkhorn resident brought the Nativity display to the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation last year, the group filed a complaint with the county, according to Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Patrick Elliot.

Download a pdf of the complaint HERE.

In response, the county implemented new rules that required the manger to be treated the same as other secular displays, and not everyone in town is happy with the move.

Even though the Christmas decorations are on county property, setting them up and maintaining them has been a function of the city for many years.

In response to the complaint, the county required that the city request a permit to put up the display.

The permit required the Nativity scene be incorporated more closely with the secular decorations, because as long as it is characterized as such it would not be a violation.

"Long story short, we had to apply for a permit for 2014 to put all of our displays out there, secular as well as religious oriented," said Elkhorn City Administrator Sam Tapson. "And a special condition of that permit was that the Nativity needed to be moved to a less conspicuous, less prominent location that was more closely aligned with the secular displays."

"We filed the permit and it was up to the county to allow or deny it. They decided to allow it with conditions, so we just met the conditions," Tapson said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization based in Madison. Its  purposes are to promote the Constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Elliot says the group still maintains the display shouldn't be on government property at all.

“They should go on church grounds, business grounds or on people's personal property,” Elliott said. “I think it's still problematic, but I don't think we are going to be litigating it.”

So far, it seems that the actions of the city have been sufficient in meeting the requests of the original complaint because Tapson has yet to hear from anyone with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Tapson said, however, that there has been some grumbling concerning the new placement.

"We've heard from a few people asking why we moved it at all," Tapson said. "No one from the Freedom From Religion Foundation has said that the change isn't adequate, but we've had some comments from people like, 'Why didn't you leave it there? We liked it there.'"

Story has been updated with comments from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.


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