Cultural storm clouds are brewing over the small town of Rainbow City, Alabama – specifically over a manger on the lawn of the Rainbow City Municipal Building.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation last week sent an email to Rainbow City mayor Terry John Calhoun protesting the city's Christmas light Nativity scene after receiving a complaint from a Rainbow City resident. Since there are no additional displays symbolizing holidays from other religions, the group says the Nativity scene violates a 1989 Supreme Court decision stating that "The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus."
Jim Turnbach, Rainbow City’s City Attorney, disagrees.
“While the Freedom From Religion Foundation states correctly law applicable to religious displays, they are incorrectly applying those cases to the situation in Rainbow City,” Turnbach told the Gadsden Times, after making what he called a “cursory review” of the group’s complaint. “Rainbow City does not believe that the Christmas display on city property is in violation of any case law.”
City workers took down the Nativity scene, which had been a holiday tradition, last Thursday only to re-install it later that day.
Alabama has become a popular Christmas season staging grounds for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which calls itself a “state/church watchdog”.
In November, the group made headlines by protesting the "Keep Christ in Christmas" theme of nearby Piedmont, Alabama’s Christmas parade. The theme was actually a tit for tat response to the FFRF's protest of official pregame prayers at Piedmont High School athletics events in March 2014.
The city scuttled the theme, but not its intent.
Parade goers donned T-shirts with Christian messages, and numerous floats featured decorations reflecting the parade's original theme. At the head of one float, children dressed as angels bowed to a man dressed as Jesus on a cross. The cross was placed inside a box decorated like a Christmas present. The side hung alongside the float read "Jesus Is The True Gift."
According to Piedmont mayor Bill Baker, turnout for the parade was the highest ever.
"This anti-religious group that started all this stuff, I really believe this has backfired on them," Baker told ABC 33/40.
"They have caused our parade to be bigger and better with more emphasis placed on Christianity."
Some Rainbow City residents were similarly defiant.
An estimated crowd of more than 500 gathered in front of Rainbow City Municipal Building Friday night, Dec. 19, for a rally organized by area churches and supporting the city's right to display the Nativity scene. People prayed, sang Christmas carols, and listened to addresses from local ministers.
Mayor Calhoun also spoke, assuring attendees that the display would continue to be put up each year as long as he was in office.
“I believe in the manger," Calhoun told the crowd. "I believe Jesus lived and died so we can be saved."