A Mobile Nativity Scene is Illegally Parked Outside City Property and Officials Are Letting It Slide

The Ellwood City Municipal Building in Pennsylvania has played host to a couple big church/state controversies since last year. In 2010, officials allowed a Nativity Scene — and nothing else — to be displayed inside the building. The Freedom From Religion Foundation rightfully argued that was illegal and requested to put up their own display in 2011, a request that was granted. That led to this banner going up alongside displays from other religious faiths:

City officials weren’t expecting that.

So this past year, the Borough council attempted to institute a lottery to prevent the free-for-all. They would let anyone apply to put up a display… because they figured they knew how it would turn out:

“We’re all assuming that the winner of a lottery would put up a creche,” said [council president Anthony] DeCarbo…

“My fear is that somebody is going to be picked in the lottery and not put up the Nativity,” [Ellwood City Nativity Placement Committee chairwoman Marisa Bunney] said.

Somehow, DeCarbo turned out to be the decisive “No” vote in a 4-3 decision against the lottery. Maybe he feared atheists would “game” the system by fairly applying for more displays than Christians…

That brings us to today.

The current policy in Ellwood City — and it’s a good policy — is that no holiday displays are allowed on the premises at all, including Nativity scenes.

But local resident and Moose Lodge member Mike Parisi thought he found a loophole in the rules. Instead of bringing a Nativity scene inside the building, why not just put one on a trailer attached to a truck and park it outside the building? In fact, since you’re allowed to park in one spot for two hours, why not stay put for a couple of hours, then move down to the next spot? It would be completely legal.

Gotta give him credit — That’s pretty ingenious:

There’s just one problem:

Since Dec 6th, it has remained in front of city hall without getting ticketed, towed, or moving on down the road.

In other words, the truck is just camped out in front of City Hall… with no penalty whatsoever being issued to Parisi.

FFRF is on it (PDF). They want copies of the “policies, codes, ordinances, resolutions, or similar records that regulate parking in front of the Ellwood City municipal building” so they can get documentation that city officials are selectively choosing not to enforce their own rules against the Christian driver:

If the Borough’s ordinances are unenforced against this display, Ellwood City is demonstrating its preference and endorsement of a sectarian religious message. Selective enforcement of neutral parking regulations poses a serious constitutional problem.

It’s just another example of city officials breaking the law in order to promote Christianity. No other religious or non-religious group ever gets that sort of treatment — and no other group wants that. All FFRF is asking for is for the city officials to follow its own laws: Don’t give one group special treatment just because its members pray to the same imaginary God as you.

By the way, the trailer carrying the mobile Nativity scene has a sign on it containing a pretty obvious spelling error. You can see it here.

(via Steel City Skeptics)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1742797601 Deanna Joy Lyons

    In the city I live in, you can’t park in one spot and then move to another one in the same block two hours later, so even while the owner of the truck was doing that it may not have been legal depending on the rules in Ellwood.

  • Purone

    Shouldn’t that be pulled by dinosaurs?

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

    From the photo, it also looks like the pick-up truck is straddling TWO parking spots. (Front tires are in one parking spot and the rear tires are clearly behind the white line marking the NEXT parking spot.)

    Thus, even if he is parked there for one single minute, is it legal for a vehicle to consume multiple parking spots at once and ignore the parking lines that everyone else is expected to obey?

  • godlesslocal

    I see this display every day. I don’t know if the trailer the nativity is on has moved at all, but the vehicle towing it has changed. There’s been the green truck in your pics, a white truck, and a white SUV.

    Granted, that doesn’t make the lack of tickets okay unless they’re doing that for everyone. I don’t know that they are doing it this year, but in the past they’ve made parking meters optional during December to spur business.

    Part of the reason I’m posting this comment, too, is that people here seem to think that the FFRF barged into town uninvited. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I am one of the folks who got this party started back in 2010. Honestly, part of me regrets it–I’m now constantly on eggshells here due to threats of physical violence, but I’m eternally grateful for Patrick et al. at FFRF for retaining my anonymity.

  • godlesslocal

    Does it matter? The trailer’s taking up the rest of that spot anyway. If parking meters are being enforced, they need to be paying for two meters regardless.

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

    I tip my hat to you for getting involved and caring enough to help the FFRF with this. Locals are crucial in battles with local government, even if your role is anonymous. I find you inspiring.

  • http://twitter.com/BetterOffDamned Better Off Damned

    Are we really STILL reading about disputes over these things? In case these people didn’t get the memo… Christmas ended three days ago.

  • Santiago

    Leave it to the moose to do something like that. Quite pathetic.

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

    It matters only IF there is a local ordinance against parking across multiple parking spots.

    Some towns have rules on that, others may not. For example, could a tractor trailer pull up and take up four parking spots? It would depend on whether there is a local law against it.

  • ortcutt

    It’s telling that the truck is parked in front of the City Hall rather than in front of a church, business, or anywhere else. The nativity scene could just be placed on the ground in front of a church, business or community non-profit and no one would have any complaint about it. Displaying a nativity scene in public isn’t their goal. Their goal is to have Christianity be the favored religion of the government, and they’re parked in front of the City Hall because they want the Nativity associated with that government. So I’d really like to stop hearing about “religion being driven from the public sphere”. It’s government-endorsement of religion that they want, not religion in the public sphere. That’s why we continue to oppose these nativity displays.

  • godlesslocal

    Eh, it seriously wasn’t a big deal. A couple emails, some pictures taken, wait for a while, some more pictures, and that was about it. Everything that’s happened since has done so with me as a spectator. I didn’t attend any of the meetings, although I’ve been following the whole thing very closely. (And I don’t recall the FFRF banner ever going up–I think that might be inaccurate. I seem to remember that Council denied it immediately.)

    Seriously though, if I had any idea–ANY idea–that this would cause so much turmoil, I probably would have left well enough alone. Don’t make me out to be anything more than I am.

  • jdm8

    I’ll grant the idea is inventive, but going through with this plan smells of desperation. Changing trucks every day, never mind every two hours, even assuming it happens half that often, seems like a considerable hassle.

    Some people will consider any change from the status quo as rude.

    I appreciate your effort.

  • godlesslocal

    If there is one, and I don’t know one way or another, it’s not well enforced. AFAIK the town has only one part-time meter guy, and I’ve never seen him ticket for that. His is an extremely thankless job, and I’m sure he’s under pressure from his superiors to avoid ticketing that particular vehicle.

  • godlesslocal

    The nativity scene that used to be in front of the municipal building (we don’t call it City Hall here) has been relocated to the front of an old Catholic church building that isn’t in use as a church anymore. (The building required extensive repairs and it wasn’t worth the cost to do them.)

  • Revytoution

    I like the symbolism. If you have the right size ball, you can just hook up to Christianity and tow it out of town.

    Seriously though, how can they call that a decoration? It looks tacky as hell.

  • godlesslocal

    No, it’s worse.

  • Octoberfurst

    Good old Christians! They’ll go to great lengths to rub their religion in your face. (And they call us “arrogant”!)

  • allein

    “Part of the reason I’m posting this comment, too, is that people here seem to think that the FFRF barged into town uninvited.”

    This is the thing that bugs me most whenever I hear news coverage about these sorts of cases. The news almost never makes it clear that the reason FFRF has “barged into” the town is because someone in town sought their help. They like to let people think that FFRF is just some outside group that trawls through the country looking for little towns putting up crosses and nativities and whatnot…it’s always “A group from Wisconsin” or “An out-of-state group” or some such phrasing (and then they play a clip of some local person complaining that no one in town has a problem with it so FFRF should mind their own business). Every once in a while they will explicity say that they are there because a local person complained, and/or that FFRF is a national organization that is simply based in Wisconsin, but it’s rare.

  • allein

    Is the building in use for anything? There’s an old church (I believe it is preserved as a historical building) in a nearby town that has long been a Weichert real estate office (at least as long as I can remember). My aunt used to work there and I got my mortgage through them. It’s kind of neat being inside this commercial office but it still has that “feel” of being inside a church. I like seeing old churches repurposed for something useful. :)

  • Mommiest

    So, what would happen if an atheist banner on a trailer were parked in the same fashion? If they ticketed the “atheist” truck, instant court case.

  • anniewhoo

    Does anyone else find this somewhat amusing? For some reason, it reminds me of Wiley Coyote trying to outsmart the Roadrunner. If the person who rigged up this moving creche would take a moment to step back, I think even they would see how this idea is simply ridiculous.

    There was a similar set-up not far from my house. In Madison, Florida, the county commissioners voted no to allowing a large stone monument of the 10 commandments on their courthouse lawn. The reason they objected was because they didn’t want to deal with the lawsuits, but the important thing is they did the right thing. So, someone put the huge monument in the back of a pick-up truck and parked it across the street from the courthouse at a private business. Sometimes the monument would be moved to the Burger King/Convenient Store/Gas station at the main intersecting road for higher visibility. It looked equally ridiculous to the creche here, but at least they were using legal loopholes. By the time I went to inspect the monument, it was gone. I was told it was sent to Valdosta, Georgia, where they just passed a law that allows 10C monuments at government buildings, as long as they are accompanied by a few other documents as part of a “historical display”.

  • godlesslocal

    I honestly don’t know. I heard a rumor at one point that a restaurant was going to relocate there, but I don’t know if it actually happened.

    My personal favorite is nearby in Pittsburgh, where they turned a church into a brewery. :)

  • allein

    That’s cool…I’m not a beer drinker but I would go. I once saw a picture (it might have been in a post here) of a church in Europe somewhere (Norway maybe?) that was turned into a bookstore. I would love to go there.

  • godlesslocal

    There’s been a lot of misinformation here about this one. I know for a fact, because I have a copy of the original request letter–that the FFRF explicitly informed the mayor’s office that the complainant–me–was local. To the best of my knowledge, neither Mayor Court nor the borough council ever made mention of this, instead preferring to spin this as an entirely external “attack”.

    Even those who’ve been told otherwise simply cannot believe that any local would ever stoop so low. You can probably imagine, but this includes friends of mine and coworkers who’ve spoken publicly about this issue.

  • Kim

    Spelling error? Maybe they just don’t like childrens’ charities :)

  • coyotenose

    Seriously. My family was involved with the Moose Lodge for over 40 years. They’ve always been pathetic. The local lodges just sort of rotted out, more metaphorically than literally.

  • Chris Clayton

    Trailers are allowed to park on Ellwood City streets if they are attached to a vehicle. Unattached trailers are not allowed. So that part is fine. However, the limit is two hours after which you must move to a new spot. Meters are free in Dec, so the money is not the issue, but leaving it parked in one spot for over 2 hours (during the day) is not allowed. The trailer owner said he going to keep moving it, but then the mayor said in effect “You don’t have to – I told them not to ticket you”. This was on KDKA radio from the owner of the trailer earlier this month.

  • Chris Clayton

    No doubt it would be vandalized, so you need a car you don’t care about. There are 100 religious nuts in that town that the rest of the citizens are tired of hearing about.

  • Chris Clayton

    The vacant church is also going to be restaurant. Right now, it has a nativity in front of the main door and big orange sign above the door that reads “Public Notice of Application for Alcoholic Beverages”.

    It puts a whole new take on the Christmas story. Apparently, it was not a star in the sky, after all; it was sign saying “Beer Here” that drew the shepards and three wise men.

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

    Well, sometimes all that is needed to get the ball rolling is for someone to:
    1) notice the constitutional violation occurring
    2) send an email and a few photos to groups like FFRF, ACLU, People for the American Way, Americans United, American Atheists, etc.

    Although you suggest that your role was small and anonymous, I would underscore that such involvement remains an important component of what is needed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1220871538 Alan Eckert

    Perhaps we should just except that there are acceptions to the rules.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    “not to enforce their own rules against the Christian driver”

    Oh there you go ASSUMING the driver is a Christian. I thought atheists were supposed to be all evidency and sciency. Do you KNOW that the driver is a Christian? Hm? NO! Didn’t think so! See, you rely on faith, therefore you are a RELIGION!

    (unlike Christianity which of course is a philosophy)

    (Yes, sarcasm, just in case anyone’s sarcasm detector broke over Christmas)

  • allein

    Guess you don’t need a liquor license for the communion wine.. ;)

  • Sue Blue

    It would be interesting to see if, and how quickly, a vehicle with a Jewish, Muslim, pagan, or atheist display would be ticketed or towed. And how quickly city ordinances would be overhauled.

  • Mommiest

    And will return again in just under one year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/darrin.rasberry Darrin Thomas Rasberry

    //All FFRF is asking for is for the city officials to follow its own laws:
    Don’t give one group special treatment just because its members pray to
    the same imaginary God as you.//

    Hemant, while I agree with the sentiment and the purpose of removing these displays from government buildings, the ease of provocation that we’re seeing from groups like FFRF and AA shows that they’re about as motivated by “fairness under the law” as Westboro Baptist is. Laws are being used as a springboard to justify placing the groups’ messages in the most aggressive, attention-grabbing way possible, and to take the biggest conceivable public dump on Christianity while maintaining the rules.

    “Christianity is stupid and foolish, and we are trying to do what we can within the rule of law and free speech to eliminate having to see its message, or to use its presentation in public as an opportunity to present the voice of reason to as many people as possible” is a lot more forthright than holding your hands up and innocently saying “hey, we’re just wanting to be fair and making sure everyone follows the rules here.”

  • Chris Clayton

    I disagree. Last year, when the nativity was on government land, FFRF protested. In early December of this year, an alternative nativity was placed down the street in front a former church soon to be a restaurant. No one complained. No one is trying to “eliminate” Christian messages. Just don’t put them on public property.

    The aggression in this case is from the other side, who can’t stand leaving it on private land. Even at the unveiling of church nativity, the mayor could not let it go and said “I’m pretty sure 98 percent of our community [wants it back at] City Hall and that’s my belief also.” So, who is being unreasonable in this fight? Certainly not FFRF.

  • http://www.facebook.com/darrin.rasberry Darrin Thomas Rasberry

    I’d agree there are, unfortunately, many examples of this from the Christian side of the issue as well, perhaps at a higher rate and definitely more aggressive (i.e. atheists from these organizations don’t actually *deface* Christian nativities or messages). I will take your counterexample under consideration; thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • Tobias27

    I live in an 80 year old country church that i converted into my home. No stained glas, but a big assed living room.

  • Tobias27

    I live in an 80 year old country church that i converted into my home. No stained glas, but a big assed living room.

  • Tobias27

    Maybe we could see a tow truck next.

  • newavocation

    Oops I thought the song went ‘away in the manger’ instead of in back of the trailer.

  • allein

    I got an email forward a while back that had pics of a church converted to a house. The bed looked it might have been where the altar would have been. It was really neat. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nick-Gorton/100000935484610 Nick Gorton

    Too bad there is not an atheist who works close to this location who could take advantage of the free parking simply by placing an atheist display on their caar and leaving it next to this. Because if they got any tickets that would make the legal case to smack these idiots back to the bronze age.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705066677 Desiree Bell-Fowlks

    For example? You have not given any specific examples. No religion should have special privilege. Why are so okay with the government allowing christianity status over others of different faiths or none at all? FFRF is protecting the rights of all atheists and theists. WBC wants a theocracy. There’s no comparison.

  • puppy

    I’m from nearby New Castle, and so I have a pretty good idea of what you’re up against. My dad wrote a letter to the New Castle News once because they allowed some group to put up an anti-abortion poster smack in the middle of town hall. I had high school science teachers straight up say that they weren’t going to teach us evolution because they didn’t believe in it…Please keep fighting the good fight!

  • NickDB

    Maybe, but you didn’t and you did. Thanks for stepping up when the situation called for it. Not sure I would have had the cojones to do it at all.

  • coyotenose

    Those organizations are very forthright about their intentions, which do not resemble what you describe.

  • godlesslocal

    Didn’t see all my posts, Nick? I work nearby, but I’m not ready to out myself. It’s not safe.

    Besides that, the nativity truck’s gone now.