BELEN, N.M. (AP) – For nearly a quarter of a century, a year-round nativity scene made of metal has rested in the little town of Belen, New Mexico.
Now Belen — Spanish for Bethlehem — is fighting to keep the nativity scene on city property and officials may even sell the land to a private owner in order to preserve the iconic art.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wants Belen to remove the images and is threatening legal action if it's not removed from public land.
"The position of the city is that the nativity scene will stay right where it is. Period," Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova told the Associated Press. "I know within the city itself almost everyone supports the nativity scene."
Still, Cordova said the city has weighed options like selling the property to moving it to another location.
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Cordova said those who oppose the nativity scene are "outsiders" who don't understand the history and culture of New Mexico — a former Spanish territory with deep Hispanic and spiritual Catholic ties.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said Belen is violating the U.S. Constitution by having the religious art on city property and the city is discriminating against nonbelievers who likely won't speak out.
"It's absurd to say because the town's name is Belen they should be allowed to have a nativity scene," Gaylor said. "There a Mecca, California. So what?"
She says if Belen puts the property up for sale, her foundation will make sure the city follows state bidding law. The foundation may even bid on the property and would replace the art with a monument to nonbelievers, Gaylor said.
The artwork honors a late artist who used to erect a nativity scene on the site each year.
There are no religious references next to it, no mention of Jesus. The recognizable image of a baby in a manger surrounded by a mother, father and animals lets viewers know it's a nativity scene. Above it are the words: Bethlehem Belen.
Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the Freedom From Religion Foundation is part of a growing movement of mainly atheists and agnostics that challenges purported violations of the separation of church and state.
"These groups have become emboldened with the rapid growth of religious "nones" who now outnumber Roman Catholics in the country," he said.
Chesnut said the nativity scene is part of the city's Spanish Catholic heritage.
The small town of 7,000 people is nearly 70 percent Latino and is one of many New Mexico municipalities with Catholic and Christian images on public lands, largely due to their historic significance. Las Cruces, New Mexico, for example, is Spanish for "The Crosses" and contains three crosses on its city seal. A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the seal 10 years ago.
The New Mexico State Capitol also contains of a number of Hispanic Catholic art pieces on its walls.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Democrat who represents Belen, said he supports the town's efforts to keep the nativity scene and hopes the city doesn't sell the property.
"I think that group doesn't understand our culture and our traditions in New Mexico," Sanchez said. "It's never been a problem before."
Oscar Ponce Jr., 23, who runs a Herbalife shop near the nativity scene, said he believes the piece should be left alone.
"No one who lives here wants it removed," Ponce said. "It seems to me to be a bullying-type situation. It's not going to work."