ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. – A western Pennsylvania mayor refused to include a banner from an atheist group that says "there are no gods" as part of a holiday display that includes a Nativity scene, which has been erected annually on city property for decades.
Hundreds of people turned out to support the mayor's decision to go ahead with the display Friday, which also includes symbols pertaining to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and secular symbols, including Santa Claus, a snowman and a Christmas tree.
The city about 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh added secular symbols to the display this year after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained last year that it amounted to a government endorsement of religion.
Seeking to head off a similar challenge, the mayor also invited the Madison, Wis.-based group to contribute something to the modified display, so the group mailed a sign that read: "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
Mayor Tony Court said he's yet to receive the banner in the mail, but he refuses to add it when it arrives. "It violates the First Amendment. It's endorsing atheism," he said, adding that the crGeche "is a statue. It's not a doctrinal statement."
The Wisconsin group's co-president, Laurie Annie Gaylor, disagreed.
"We wrote this as a repudiation of the manger scene," she said. "The manger scene is a doctrinal statement. ... If you don't believe that baby is your lord and savior, according to Christian tradition and hymns sung at this time of year, then you are not saved."
Gaylor rejected arguments that the crGeche isn't merely a Christian symbol because some Muslims have defended the Nativity scene as honoring Jesus as a prophet equal to Muhammad.
Muslims consider the crGeche consistent with the teachings of the Quran and said Muslims also believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, even though they would reject the Christian teaching that Jesus was also God, confirmed Ibrahim Hooper, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
"Are you trying to tell me that someone could look at that and not think this is about Christianity? The national pastime is denial, but that is carrying denial a little too far, don't you think?" Gaylor said.
Court said the Nativity scene is a "lovable tradition in this town" and defended keeping the anti-religious banner out of the display.
"It's offensive," Court said. "Nothing in our display challenges or puts down what others believe. I don't think you can say that about the banner the group is supposed to be sending."