Walking into the City Council’s workshop Thursday, I thought enough of the city’s nativity scene to stop and snap a picture for use in the collection of Christmas display art that we plan to run in the Washington County News.
The result of that wasn’t anything I could’ve predicted.
After taking the picture, I walked on in to the council meeting where I took my usual seat on the front row. I turned to Barbara James and jokingly said, “Sorry I’m late. I had to take a picture of the nativity scene for the ACLU.”
Mayor Linda Cain heard enough of that to turn to me and let me know she didn’t think that would be a good idea in a way that stuck with me.
It left me curious, wondering what the rules are surrounding such displays, so the next morning, Friday, I got on the phone to start tracking down experts to ask: “What is permissible in holiday displays on public property? Are there regulations, and if so, what are they?”
I called the city manager, Dan Miner, to ask where the display came from, and discovered it was the city’s property. I called others, including an outfit called the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
I left messages with everyone except Miner, who was in his office, and at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) I spoke to a woman who asked that I call back and speak to the FFRF staff attorney, Andrew Seibel.
A few minutes later, I did just that. We chatted about the area, and he said he was familiar with Washington County from an incident his foundation had been involved with a couple years back. We discussed what, in his opinion as an attorney, is and what is not allowable in public property displays.
All of this was out of a sense of curiosity, not knowing the answers, like many other calls reporters and editors make during the course of a week that don’t end up in the paper or anywhere other than a “curiosity satisfied” file in our heads.
In this case, though, the call took on a life of its own.
Seibel, on behalf of his organization, sent a letter to the city of Chipley expressing his opinion that the nativity display as it was standing was unconstitutional. He also sent me a copy.
When I received the letter and saw that he had sent it to the city, I tried to contact city attorney Michelle Tagert, and I wrote her an email apologizing for the FFRF’s letter to the city.
It was not my plan to take down the city’s nativity scene nor cause anyone else to do so. There was no story written and I went home for the weekend.
However, the can of worms had been opened, and it just kept spilling. By the time wiggling was in full swing, it was being reported that I personally demanded the city remove its nativity scene and that I had a company lawyer making the same demand via letter. Neither was true, but I found myself the subject of heated debate and the target of a lot of unloosed arrows.
I am sorry that the letter from FFRF was generated after I contacted them for an interview, and that the FFRF letter was construed as an attempt by myself and the Washington County News to have the city’s nativity scene removed. Again, that was not the case.
Our newspaper is a vibrant part of the community, and we share the stories and histories of our lives and what it is that makes living in Washington County special.
At the end of the day, this is your newspaper and it’s intended to be both a part of the community and a reflection of the people who live here. And I take that role seriously.