No Christmas Nativity Display on Township Property This Year?
The traditional Nativity scene is absent from Woodbridge Town Hall, a year after a complaint from an atheist legal organization was lodged.
There's a Christmas wreath over the main doors to the Woodbridge Municipal Building, and inside, a Christmas tree sparkles with holiday lights.
It's Christmas around Woodbridge, but one display that has traditionally been part of the decoration seems to be missing.
That's the Nativity Scene, a decades-old plywood set of cutouts constructed by employees of the township's Public Works Department, and usually placed in front of town hall as part of its seasonal decorating.
Last year, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRFF) got wind of the religious display on township property and sent a letter to municipal officials, saying that the nativity was a violation of the separation of church and state.
The display, usually set up on the corner of Main Street and Rahway Avenue, placed "the imprimatur of the government behind the Christian religious doctrine," said FRFF attorney Patrick Elliott last year after a Woodbridge resident had made a complaint about the manger scene.
Elliott sent several letters to township officials, citing the various legal reasons as to why such a display was, in their view, illegal and unconstitutional.
Elliott said he never received a reply from the township administration. Mayor John McCormac did not return repeated phone calls for this story.
"We have no problem with general holiday decorations. A Nativity scene is a religious display, and thus, it's unconsitutional on public property," Elliott said.
In New Jersey, one court held that it's legally permissible to put up a manager scene if there are artifacts from other religions, such as a Jewish Menorah, as part of the display, or if non-religious elements, such as Santa Claus figures, are included.
Elliott thought that adding non-religious decorations to make the Nativity legal in a court's eyes was "absurd," and that it wasn't necessary a clear legal go-ahead to put the Christian scene on public property.
In Ellwood City, Penn., Elliott said there was an ongoing dispute with a Nativity scene on government-owned property. Eventually, the town fathers decided to keep it off municipal property.
"A local business owner wasn't too happy about that, so he put up the display on his land," Elliott said. "That's fine for a private individual to do it."
St. James Church is on Amboy Avenue, at the opposite end of Main Street from Town Hall. A prominent display of the Christ child's birth in a creche has always been on display there, along with a "Keep Christ in Christmas" sign.
Elliott said he's pleased that Woodbridge officials have apparently decided to eliminate the Nativity scene from their holiday decorating.
"Our goal is to be informative and have these issues worked out without the need for litigation," Elliott said.