ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. -- As more than 1,000 people surrounded the Ellwood City Municipal Building to support its Jesus-and-Santa lawn display, Mayor Anthony Court said he wouldn't add a banner that says religion is "myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
Mr. Court had invited the Freedom from Religion Foundation to contribute something to the borough's modified display after the Madison, Wis., group complained last year about a lone Nativity scene erected on the lawn for decades. The crowd had apparently heard false rumors that members of the atheist group were coming to attack the Nativity scene.
What the Freedom From Religion Foundation actually did was mail a banner that says, "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." It wants it placed among the creche, Santa, sleigh, reindeer, snowman, tree and Kwanzaa poster. A Hanukkah menorah is in a window overlooking them.
"I believe [the banner] violates the First Amendment. It's endorsing atheism," the mayor said. The creche "is a statue. It's not a doctrinal statement."
The secular symbols were added this year to comply with a 1985 Supreme Court ruling requiring any religious displays on public property to be accompanied by secular symbols.
Although his organization isn't involved, Witold Walczak, Pennsylvania legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the mayor is probably within his rights to reject the banner.
"If this is a government holiday display, they have fairly broad discretion in deciding what to include in the presentation," he said.
Laurie Annie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said she hadn't seen this year's modified display but considered her group's banner a necessary addition.
"The mayor invited us to put up our own display, and we are taking him up on it," she said. "We wrote this as a repudiation of the manger scene. 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."
Asked about Muslims who have defended Nativity displays out of reverence for Jesus, and about the Unitarian who wrote "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," she responded that the creche could only be viewed as a Christian devotional object.
"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?" she said.
Ibrahim Hooper, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., said he was just getting ready to send out his annual Christmastime editorial about what Christians and Muslims can find in common. The creche is consistent with the Quran, he said.
Although Muslims don't hold some Christian beliefs about Jesus, "In Islam, Jesus -- peace be upon him -- is revered as a prophet of God, equal to the prophet Muhammad," he said. "We believe in the virgin birth."
Although the pro-Nativity demonstrators with whom the Post-Gazette spoke hadn't seen the proposed banner, they said they had no objection to some symbol of secularism alongside the creche.
"I believe in a free market system of religion," said Mack Costello, 69, of Ellwood City.
"If the agnostics want, they can put up a big question mark. The atheists can put up, I don't know, a zero? It's important that Americans be able to express their religious views without encumbrance or interference from those who don't share those views."
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. First Published December 3, 2011 5:00 AM