Elementary School Removes Nativity Scene from Lawn to Avoid a Costly Lawsuit

Guess where this Nativity Scene was seen?

It was outside Cottondale Elementary School in Florida… for some reason. (What’s that? Oh right. “Tradition.”)

But not anymore. In order to avoid any lawsuits that they would lose in a heartbeat, the school has put the Baby Jesus in a closet:

Principal Brenda Jones told television station WJHG the decision to keep Baby Jesus in the closet came after an official with the Department of Education dropped by to discuss the separation of church and state.

“The Dept. of Education came in and talked to us about the legalities of religion in the school systems and the separation of the two,” Jones told the television station.

In an attempt to be fair to everyone, the principal said, “We decided that we would just not put the Nativity scene out on campus.”

Smart move. Even former school board member Betty Duffee told reporters she understood the reason for the removal:

“There are people in the community that are threatening to sue the school board (over separation of church and state issues), and it costs a tremendous amount of money to defend something you know you will lose,” she said.

“It’s not that we’re against it; it’s just that the federal law prohibits it,” she said.

That’s a lovely sentiment: We would totally break the law if we could, but the government tells us we can’t. Way to teach the little kids a lesson.

In response, a private company across the street from the school has put up the school’s Nativity scene on their own property. They’re acting like they’re beating the system by doing it… but they’re not. They’re perfectly within their rights to do this and no one will tell them to remove it.

(via Atheist Lutheran)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Compuholic

    We would totally break the law if we could, but the government tells us we can’t

    I don’t see it as such. She does not like it. That is her prerogative, totally okay and even understandable at some level. But at least she recognizes that the law is more important than her gut feeling. And I applaud her for that.

    • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

      Not really. Hemant left out much of the rest of her comments; she called the removal of the nativity scene a “tragic thing” and said, ”I know it’s hard to see this happen, because it feels like we’re losing a freedom, but this is the state of affairs in this nation.” I don’t get the impression she respects the law, but rather sees it as unfairly oppressing Christians.

      • Hairloos

        This country was founded by christians, not aetheists. It is still %80+ christian and they have as much right as you to vote on what happens in this nation! The constitution was developed based upon christian beliefs , not hindu, not muslim , not bhuddhist and not aetheist yet all those who adhere to those belief systems are flocking to the U.S.! Show some respect for those that tolerate YOU!
        You don’t have to attend mass, you don’t have to celebrate xmas and you don’t have to believe but what you’re advocating is that if 8/10 ppl want something then they have to cowtow to 2/10! Not exactly a democratic ideal

  • Rover Serton

    I kindof wish the business across the street was a palm reader, or a casino, or a rent a toilet but a garage that makes its money by accidents and “acts of god” is pretty good too.

    • Superdove

      Why would you hope for someone’s misfortune? That may be “holiday” spirit, but it’s definitely not Christmas spirit!

      • Rover Serton

        I was not asking for an “act of god” to befall the person, that would be cruel! Auto repair shops make their money when cars have problems.  If I made it seem that I wanted car accidents, I am very sorry to have been so unclear. I don’t.

        • Isilzha

          You weren’t unclear.  At least, I understood what you were saying.  I never once thought you were wishing for misfortune to befall anyone.  I think Superdove is trying to stir up trouble.

      • Sindigo

        Is there a difference?

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Is the school legally allowed to give away school property to the business across the street????

    • Rover Serton

      Wonder who bought it in the first place.  Bet it was bought a while back when separation wasn’t even considered or donated.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    Yay, one public institution has been liberated from religious intrusions, one hundred butt-hurt Christians can keep their tradition going, now without breaking the very first portion of the very first amendment of the supremest law of the land. It’s a win-win situation.

  • Pluto Animus

    “That’s a lovely sentiment: We would totally break the law if we could, but the government tells us we can’t. Way to teach the little kids a lesson.”

    Even more galling, you could put it this way:  We would totally disrespect our non-Christian students, but the government tells us we can’t.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

     Ugh, that second article is absolutely horrifying.

    Not only that, Windham said he’s been encouraging other business owners to display nativity scenes on their property as well. It’s all part of a growing community effort to keep Christ in ‘Christ’mas- and in the schools.

    Wednesday, community member Vicki Barber spoke with News Channel 7 about what she described as her “fire and calling” to bring God back into the schools. Barber, with the help of members from her church, Piney Grove Baptist in Cottondale, has planned to help set up the nativity on Windham’s property Friday, directly facing the school.

    “[Barber can] cover the whole place if she wants to- the more the merrier to me” Windham told us. “I like it! Anywhere she wants to put it out there would be great and as much as she wants to put out there, on our property. More people will see it that way- more kids will see it that way.”

    These people really don’t get it. No one is trying to prevent children from seeing nativity scenes. We just don’t want them on government property. Public elementary schools are not allowed to promote Christianity. Their god does not belong in the schools. It belongs on private property, and as long as they put it there, we couldn’t care less.

    She and Windham both told us that if just one child saw baby Jesus in the manger and asked about the story of Christmas, the endeavor would be well worth it

    Right, because children growing up in the American South have no idea about the story of baby Jesus in the manger. I suppose they think the kids in their community live under a rock?

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

      They probably are talking about any nonbeliever kids who are ignorant to their mythology.  The most amusing thing about that is that atheist kids know more about their mythology… the TRUTH about their mythology… than the Christian kids do, and are more likely to defend a believer’s right to believe in whatever they wish.

      When my son was in 1st grade, one of the evangelical kids was running around the playground telling all the other kids that the Easter bunny wasn’t real and to think he was was against God.  (This is a Charter school that is about 98% Christian and of that, 95% evangelical.)  A few of the kids were in tears and my son went over to the instigator and told him to lay off, the other kids can believe if they want, it’s not his business.  I was very proud of him.  I know the Easter bunny isn’t part of the religious celebration of Easter, but my son knew that the other kids could believe in the bunny if they wanted just like the religious kid can NOT believe.  The point is to let them if choose.

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        Yikes, when I read things like that, it makes me glad that I was raised in an area with very few evangelicals! I can recall several members of my third grade class debating the existence of Santa Claus, but religion never came up.

        Of course, not all atheist kids know a lot about Christian mythology. I didn’t know anything about it when I was in elementary school, but even I was aware of the story of the baby in the manger, and I’d seen nativity scenes. This idea that they have that American children have never been exposed to it is just odd.

  • treedweller

    Your paraphrasing twists her words. She said she is not against it. She did not say “we would break the law if we could.” in fact, she said they will not do it because to do so would break the law, regardless of her preferences. This is exactly what we should be asking for from our Christian school administrators and government employees. Why are you attacking her? I could even believe she is on board with separation issues, but merely chose to use the federal law to provide herself some cover. That might not be the bravest tack to take, but we’ve seen what rabid Christians sometimes do to people who push for separation on principal, and she could hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid that scene.

    Please continue to take Christians to ask when they try to force their religion on us, but do not turn against the ones who are actually doing what is right.

    • treedweller

      *principle. We should never climb onto principals to push for separation.

    • treedweller

      *to task

    • Isilzha

      It’s not that we’re for it [the removal]. = We want to put xian religious crap on display in public schools. 

      However, the law is the only thing stopping them for doing as they please.

    • Gus Snarp

      Did you not read the quoted bit? She makes it quite clear that she does not support removing the nativity, that the only reason she’s doing it is because it the nativity is in violation of the law and someone is suing.

      To me that’s the main point, she’s trying to deflect all blame to someone filing a lawsuit, rather than recognizing that a public school displaying a nativity is wrong.

  • http://www.imagesandmeanings.com/ Gary Hill

    Where I live in rural Wales, the supermarket in the nearest town has a nativity display at the entrance to the store.

    I did a double-take when I noticed that Santa was in the manger and the elves and reindeer where crowded around.

    I’ve only seen this once before, in a department store in Japan over 20 years ago. It seems like a good compromise for fundies; a nod to religion and they get to keep the capitalism…  

  • Annie

    I was very happy to read that it was someone from the department of Education who came to talk to them.  It will be so much easier for organizations like the FFRF, and all of us,  when government organizations actually start to police themselves over separation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    Comment left in the first news link.

    Red Neckerson · Top Commenter · Junior high school

    you atheast scum better get down on your hands and nees and beg for gods mercy.

    • John

       Just a troll, judging by the name.

      • Piet Puk

         Seems more like a Poe.

  • Gus Snarp

    Wouldn’t it be amazing if, just for once, a school official, instead of saying: “We’re doing this because someone is (or could) suing us and since we are in violation of the law it would cost us a lot of money”, said: “It has come to our attention that students and members of our community who are of different religious and ethnic backgrounds could feel excluded by this display. Not just those who do not believe, but also Muslims and Jews. These people are members of our community and it is wrong to exclude them. We encourage churches and private individuals to display the nativity if it is appropriate to their faith and their celebrations, but we serve the community at large and will show them more respect in the future.”

  • Dave

    I am sure you have explained this before … but why exactly does the presence of a nativity scene bother you guys so much and what about the scene offends you ????

    • allein

      It is a sectarian religious display, put up by a government entity (a public school) on government property. It’s not difficult to understand.

      • allein

        Just for the sake of clarification, my comment was in response to the “what about the scene offends you” part of your question, and, of course, is only referring to this particular case. Nativity scenes, in and of themselves, do not offend me. It’s all in where they are placed and by whom. In your front yard, your church, your business, no one cares. Some of them are even rather beautiful, as artistic expression.

    • Lefty

      this may be a useful parallel: 

      replace the nativity scene on public property with a big sign that says THERE IS NO GOD. the sign is made of SOLID GOLD and the letters are beautiful calligraphy. it’s beautiful! why does its presence bother and offend you?
      simply put, both nativity scene and sign have no place on public grounds. 

  • SeekerLancer

    I think Jon Stewart put it best when he was saying how insane it is that we can be absolutely surrounded by Christmas beginning at Thanksgiving and yet they feel Christmas is threatened in some way.


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