Canonsburg moves creche off borough property

Resident complains it's 'disrespectful'

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Like an old fruitcake, disputes about nativity scenes and the separation of church and state seem to follow the Pittsburgh area around.

Looking at a landmark Supreme Court decision out of the city to its north, officials in Canonsburg recently removed a manger scene from outside the borough building that has been there every Christmas for nearly three decades.

The nativity scene erected yearly by the Knights of Columbus was moved to a nearby private business after a Canonsburg resident complained in writing that it was "disrespectful" to the borough's non-Christian residents. Borough Manager Terry Hazlett said he had no choice but to move the religious-themed scene.

The borough offices were "inundated with phone calls" Monday protesting the move, he said.

"I didn't want to do this either, but didn't feel I had a choice. It's a separation of church and state issue," Mr. Hazlett said. "We know what happened in Pittsburgh when they challenged it."

In the 1989 case County of Allegheny vs. ACLU, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a nativity scene on the steps of the County Courthouse violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.

"I didn't feel we had a choice in the matter. If they took us to court, we would probably lose," Mr. Hazlett said. "It takes taxpayer money to defend yourself in court."

The manger scene in Canonsburg -- birthplace of Perry Como -- was moved four doors away from the municipal building to private property at Alpha Structures Inc.

The legal rule of thumb is Christmas trees are kosher on government property, but stable scenes representing the birth of Jesus are not.

A giant creche on Downtown Pittsburgh's Grant Street -- a replica of the one in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican -- has been erected every Christmas season since 1999, but that is on private property at the U.S. Steel Plaza. Another smaller nativity scene had been placed during the 1990s on government-maintained property at Gateway Center, drawing protests.

The Supreme Court also ruled in 1989 that a Hanukkah menorah mounted on the wall outside the front doors to the City-County Building was acceptable, in part because it was placed near a large Christmas tree and thereby did not endorse a particular religion. The court said pairing the different symbols together conveyed "the city's secular recognition of different traditions for celebrating the winter-holiday season."

Many Canonsburg residents were upset when the Washington Observer-Reporter wrote about the creche matter on Monday.

"I find Perry Como offensive," wrote one reader on the newspaper's website. "Please remove his statue."

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581.


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