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New home sought for nativity scene in Chambersburg

'We did not object to anything that was on display at the fountain. All we wanted was equal opportunity.'

'We did not object to anything that was on display at the fountain. All we wanted was equal opportunity.'

November 24, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- A nativity scene that has been part of Chambersburg's center square fountain for more than 20 years will move, but it will not go away, owners said.

Denise Lucas, president of the Norland Garden Club of Chambersburg, which owns the crèche, said dozens of private property owners have offered to display it. Where it will go has yet to be decided, she said.

"The timing of this is unfortunate, having just put it up a week ago, but honestly, we have been expecting this," she said. "It (the crèche) is moving, but it is not gone."

The Chambersburg Borough Council voted unanimously Monday night to permit only flowers and flags to be displayed at the fountain, therefore forcing the club to remove the nativity scene.

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The vote came after Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc. of York, Pa., informed the council it planned to place a memorial to atheist veterans on the north side of the fountain and advised it would erect the display regardless of the council's approval.

"I feel this is the only decision we could have made," said council president Bill McLaughlin. "We were advised by our solicitor that the Supreme Court ruled that it is all or nothing."

Removing all displays of free speech was never the intent of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, said Carl Silverman, a member of the board of directors.

Silverman, who focuses on activism and constitutional issues for the organization, said the intent was merely to dispel the myth that "no atheists live in foxholes" by honoring nonbelievers who served in the U.S. military.

Attempting to take God out of the public square is not how his organization approaches the First Amendment, Silverman said.

"We think that it is a bad strategy, since if we take Jesus and God out of the public square, we lose the ability to be visible as well," he said. "We feel putting atheism into the public square along with God is the way to go."

For more than 20 years, the Norland Garden Club of Chambersburg has erected a nativity scene on the east side of the fountain, Lucas said.

A tradition of more than 10 years at the time, the crèche was grandfathered into borough policy on Dec. 13, 1995.

According to the borough's 1995 policy for decorating the fountain, "Decorations other than those established by long tradition should not be permitted without (Memorial Fountain) Committee and borough administration approval."

Chambersburg Mayor Pete Lagiovane said he often wondered why no one challenged having a religious display at center square.

"I have seen the nativity there and wondered why it was allowed," he said. "Were I here back then, I would have recommended removing all displays. We knew sooner rather than later someone would complain."

Borough policy operates on a "by-challenge" basis, McLaughlin said, adding that until Monday, no one had challenged what displays could be placed at center square.

Changing the policy immediately to prohibit his organization's message is obvious discrimination, Silverman said.

"The timing of this is questionable, with this happening right after our application," he said. "Clearly, this is viewpoint discrimination, and I feel we could win this in court."

Whether Pennsylvanian Nonbelievers will challenge the borough's decision in court remains to be seen. Silverman said the organization has yet to consult with its legal counsel on the matter.

McLaughlin said the entire matter is disappointing.

"It is another victory for the forces of political correctness, and the people of Chambersburg are the latest victim of the tyranny of the minority," he said.

Pennsylvania Nonbelievers has been taking flak for the council's action Monday, despite never advocating for removal of the religious display, Silverman said.

"We're getting beat up on by many people," he said. "We did not object to anything that was on display at the fountain. All we wanted was equal opportunity."

Lucas said the garden club hopes to move the display to a new location by the weekend.

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