558 N. Main St., Prineville, OR 97754 | (541) 447-6205
The scene stays
The Prineville City Council chose to retain the nativity scene while trying to avoid a lawsuit
Nearly 150 people attended the Tuesday evening Prineville City Council meeting as the future of the Christmas nativity scene outside City Hall was discussed. Seating was limited and much of the crowd stood just outside the council chambers door.
January 13, 2011
The City of Prineville may have taken their nativity scene display down a week early, but they don’t intend to keep it down for good.
Nearly 150 local citizens packed the council chambers at City Hall as the Prineville City Council discussed the future of the Christian-themed display. The majority of the crowd made it known that they supported the nativity scene and the Council echoed that sentiment.
“I have been in contact with all of the Council members and every Council member has indicated to me that they support the nativity scene remaining,” City of Prineville Attorney Carl Dutli told the audience as they erupted in applause.
The future of the display was put in doubt when the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based national group, sent a letter to the City opposing the placement of the nativity scene at the doorstep to City Hall.
“It is unlawful for the City to maintain, erect, or host this nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing one religion,” their letter stated.
The FFRF does not hesitate to file lawsuits against such perceived violations and consequently, the City was left to figure out how to retain the nativity scene and avoid a potential lawsuit.
“You may say, ‘Fine, let them sue us,’” Dutli said. “You can win a lawsuit, but you can lose a lot of money just with the cost of defending lawsuits.”
Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe similarly emphasized a desire to avoid legal issues, despite multiple offerings for legal assistance.
“We don’t need to get into that at this point,” she said.
Given their intent, Dutli laid out two scenarios that would greatly reduce or eliminate the likelihood of a lawsuit while retaining the annual Christmas display.
“If a city or governmental body wants to maintain the nativity scene itself, they can do so but they have to do it as part of a broader display, meaning that you may have Santa Claus looking in on baby Jesus,” Dutli explained. “Another alternative is for a private individual or private group to display the nativity scene on public property. In that case, they don’t have to put in a secular display, but that would also allow other groups to have the same right to put displays up at the same time.”
The Council opened the meeting for public input prompting nearly a dozen residents to voice their thoughts. While their preferences differed regarding the City’s next move, the testimony showed universal and passionate support for the nativity scene for a variety of reasons.
“I am convinced that the nativity scene not only has religious significance for some people, but it has historical significance for our community,” said local resident Don Henry.
Crook County Parks and Recreation employee Duane Garner came to a similar conclusion.
“Although there seems to be paranoia in this day and age of displaying religious symbols, this is the heritage of America,” he said. “I don’t think we should be afraid of groups trying to force us into not displaying our heritage.”
Others said the display gives them a sense of pride in their community.
“When we drove through town that first Christmas (in 1987), I noticed the nativity scene,” Henry said. “It impressed us that in a town of this size that there so many in the community that were in support of such a display.”
Yet at the heart of the comments and the reaction to those comments, the citizens in attendance made it clear that their greatest reason for supporting the nativity scene was the very event it represents.
“Someone in a group I was meeting with this past week said, ‘It’s more than just plastic figures and a manger. It’s a testimony of God loving the world and sending his son Jesus Christ for mankind,’” said local resident Craig Oehlschlaeger. “It’s a gift to mankind.”
Garner expressed similar feelings and pointed out how significant he feels the City’s display is.
“We already have opportunity to display many private nativity scenes around this town,” he said. “That’s nothing special. The special thing is that the City of Prineville proudly set out a nativity scene and said, ‘This is Christmas. This is the name of the holiday.’”
When it comes to the future of the nativity scene, local residents praised the City for its decision to retain it while suggesting the community remain defiant of outside influences.
“Can we make it bigger,” one audience member quipped.
Others made more pointed comments.
“We do need to stand in the gap,” said longtime Prineville resident Steve Caraway. “It’s interesting how just one or two people will come in and try to change our community, and we have to take a stand.”
Roppe said the Council would form a committee to sift through the multitude of data before eventually reaching a conclusion on how to proceed. As far as feedback is concerned, she encouraged people to keep the dialogue going regardless of their beliefs.
“This city wants you to talk to us if you have a concern,” Roppe said. “We do want to honor our neighbors’ faith, whether it is Christian or non-Christian.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to the nativity scene, one choice has already been made.
“Trust me, you will see your nativity scene next year,” Roppe concluded.
The committee to determine the future of the nativity scene is comprised of
Crook County Parks and Recreation Director Maureen Crawford
Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Gowen
Prineville City Council Jack Seley
City of Prineville Attorney Carl Dutli
Citizen at-large Gary Goodman