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Nativity display showcased in Fertile school prompts legal debate

Cynthia Johnson | Forum News Service

A nativity scene at the public school is the talk of this town of 800 this week.

Head cook Jodi Petry set it up in the cafeteria, but Superintendent Brian Clarke decided to take it down Monday.

The school board reviewed his decision Tuesday night and decided that the nativity scene could go back up as long as displays of other religious holidays are also shown.

School board members either did not return calls or refused to comment about their decision.

Asked about her action, Petry simply said, “I am a Christian. It’s about Christmas.”


This isn’t the first time a nativity scene has been placed in a public setting, and the Supreme Court’s ruling is nuanced about such situations.

Many here, though, agree with Petry.

“I think it’s perfectly fine,” said Fertile resident Barbara Miller. “It’s for the children, they enjoy it. Now, if it was adults they could make up their own minds, but for children the decorations are part of the holiday.”

“I think that it’s perfectly fine to have religious things up in the school,” said Carter Burke, a junior at the high school. “I mean I don’t really think it offends a whole lot of people. We’re a really small community, most of us know each other and know what religion we are.”

“Christmas is a special time and some of these children don’t get that at home,” said Darlene Gaft, a Fertile resident and graduate of the high school. “I feel that God has been taken out of the schools so much and Christmas is a very important time of the year, and I just feel like ‘What’s wrong with decorations in the school?’”

Legal matters

Thirty years ago, conflict over a nativity scene reached the Supreme Court. The Lynch v. Donnelly decision in 1984 is widely cited in these kinds of situations. But it wasn’t just a nativity scene that the court ruled on.

The city of Pawtucket, R.I., had erected a holiday display in a private park that included Santa’s house, a Christmas tree, a banner that said “Season’s Greetings” and a nativity scene.

The court ruled 5-4 that the nativity scene, in the context of the display, was not a surreptitious effort by the city to promote a particular religion, which would violate constitutional prohibition of a state religion. It added that the government routinely displays religious paintings in national galleries and Congress has made Christmas a national holiday, all contexts that do not imply endorsement of Christianity.

Dissenters on the court noted, however, that the ruling was very unclear about whether a nativity scene or a cross displayed alone would violate the Constitution.

Whether the Fertile school’s nativity scene is set up again, students won’t have far to go to see another one – set up outside Concordia Lutheran Church just across the street from the school.

Forum News Service reporter Tu-Uyen Tran contributed to this report.

Forum News Service

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