Iowa Community Divided Over Nativity Scene on Courthouse Lawn


This Dec. 10, 2019, photo shows a relocated nativity scene in Centerville, Iowa. Many residents of the small southern Iowa city have been angered by a decision to move a nativity scene from the courthouse lawn to outside a nearby church. They are demanding officials return the display to the lawn, but a national atheist group says if the nativity is moved back they will demand equal access for atheists, Satanists, wiccans and other faiths. (Kyle Ocker/The Daily Iowegian via AP)

CENTERVILLE, Iowa (AP) — An atheist organization will fight for a display of its own on a southern Iowa county courthouse lawn if the city council decides to return a Nativity display to the site, the group’s leader said.

A Nativity scene was erected Nov. 18 on the grounds of the Appanoose County Courthouse in Centerville, but some residents complained that a religious display should not be placed on government property. The display was moved Monday to a spot about two blocks south, the Daily Iowegian reported.

The issue of religious displays on public property has arisen in several states. Atheist and religious groups have set up displays in the Capitol Rotunda in Lincoln, Nebraska, over the years. Capitol administrators say the public building is open to people of all faiths.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that displaying a Nativity scene on public property does not violate the U.S. Constitution, saying it has a legitimate secular purpose and does not primarily advocate a certain religion.

The Nativity in Centerville was created by the Centerville-Rathbun Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. City Administrator Jason Fraser approved the display’s location but told the chamber that it needed to be moved before Thanksgiving. It took until Monday afternoon before enough volunteers could be gathered to move the display off the lawn.

The county owns the building and the land underneath; the city owns the lawn.

Some residents have called for the Nativity scene to be returned, and the City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue at its meeting Monday. The Rev. Tony Angran of Solid Rock Church of God started a petition drive to return the display to the courthouse grounds.

He referred The Associated Press on Friday to what he said earlier this week on the church Facebook page: “I am personally appalled that the very reason for the season be taken out of the very heart of this city and moved elsewhere.”

Justin Scott, the state director for the American Atheists organization, told the newspaper Thursday that if the council decides to return the nativity scene to the courthouse lawn, “We will, in fact, demand equal access to the same property.”


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