Gig Harbor nativity drama adds another chapter
Jan 17, 2017, 5:33 AM | Updated: Feb 13, 2017, 2:29 pm
Two national special-interest legal groups have set their sights on Gig Harbor, preparing for a showdown between religious liberty and constitutional rights.
Gig Harbor skipped its annual nativity scene in 2016 after the city received legal threats from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Now, another national organization has set its sights on Gig Harbor and is prepared for a fight.
“This is a standard pattern occurring across the country: a radical group will complain to the local government about a nativity scene in a holiday display, and the government will immediately surrender out of fear of legal trouble,” says Roger Byron, senior counsel for the First Liberty Institute. “This is sad and flagrantly un-American. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that such a display is perfectly lawful and has been for decades.”
On Monday, the First Liberty Institute sent a letter to Gig Harbor arguing that the law is straightforward and simple. According to its interpretation, the city should have no problem allowing the nativity scene. It offered to meet with city officials to help guide them in the First Amendment issue — specifically on what is called the “Reindeer Rule.” The rule basically states that cities can host such nativity scenes as long as secular aspects are present, such as snowmen, reindeer, etc., according to First Liberty’s letter.
The First Liberty Institute is a legal organization dedicated to fighting religious freedom cases. If the Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to keeping church and state separate by making sure a baby Jesus is nowhere to be found on public property, First Liberty is its opposition — letting baby Jesus show up wherever he likes. Or at least, wherever American citizens like.
First Liberty promotes that it makes legal stands for all Americans, of all faiths, to practice their religion. Its cases are largely over Judaeo-Christian issues and in most instances, the organization files amicus briefs. The Gig Harbor issue fits right in with many of its past and current cases.
Northwest residents may recognize the First Liberty Institute from other high profile cases. It represents Oregon’s Aaron and Melissa Klein in the ongoing wedding cake controversy. The couple refused to make a cake for a lesbian wedding. It also has taken up the fight of Bremerton football coach Joe Kennedy, who caused controversy when he prayed with his players.
Gig Harbor: Legal battleground
Before the holiday season started in 2016, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the City of Gig Harbor. It argued that the city was violating the separation of church and state by allowing a resident to set up a nativity scene on public property.
The scene had been set up for years by Gig Harbor’s John Skansi. He set it up in a park named after his family.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation said that if the city had no permitting process for such displays, it was favoring a religion. The city opted to skip the scene in 2016, and planned to address the issue in 2017 — most likely setting up a permitting process.
The matter sparked a controversy among Gig Harbor residents. First Liberty now represents Skansi.