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Centerville’s city council held a meeting on Monday that allowed for limited public discussion of the city’s decision to move the nativity scene from the town square to privately owned property. One resident spoke in favor of moving the nativity scene, but nearly everyone else supported putting the nativity scene back at the square.

Mayor Mike O’Connor laid the ground rules for the session.

“Typically when we get input from the community we stick to a three-minute rule for time,” he said. “I don’t want this to be a marathon.”

He had city administrator Jason Fraser talk about how the city arrived at where it is at with the controversy.

Fraser said the city generally doesn’t regulate the content of the chamber displays or activities at the square. He explained that, in the spring, he had discussions with pastor Brad Dittmer, Dr. Brad McConville and the chamber director about including a nativity scene at the square.

Fraser said the proposal passed his test in that it would be part of the chamber’s display and would be among other decorations.

However, when things were set up, Fraser said the chamber’s display was smaller than in past years and, the chamber itself wasn’t necessarily involved with the nativity scene.

Before anyone else had an opportunity to speak, Fraser recommended to the council that the nativity scene stay where it currently is and not be moved back to the square.

“As far as the legal risks, it is minimal with that being on private property versus relocating it,” he said. “(That) could expose us to more legal action or unwanted counterprotests for that location.”

Fraser said the city needs to develop a formal process for approving permits for things such as this.

“That’s probably a failure of my office to not have that formalized,” he said. “We’ve allowed about everything up there at different times, as far as events. But as far as the display goes, both there and the park, we don’t have any formal policy on who can and can’t use it and what it can be used for.”

The first woman who spoke did not state her name into the microphone, so I cannot say who it was. But, she asked, based on federal law, if more secular decorations were included, would the display be moved at all?

She said she’s talked with people on the decorative committee and they were not approached about adding decorations. She likes the location of where the scene is currently, but said she’d like to see something at the square.

“I think us Christians have rights also,” she said. “You know, we’re not forcing this on anybody. This is your decision. Your religion is your choice, but that’s something that we enjoy looking at. It’s all about love. How can anybody object to love?”

Pastor Tony Angran said a petition to bring the nativity scene back to the square has 1,014 signatures. He thanked the person, or persons, who complained.

“They have brought more attention to the nativity and to Christmas than all the churches in town could do,” he said. “When our children, grands and greats, look at the nativity now, we will have a story to tell in how some did not want it on the courthouse lawn and some did.”

Angran said he appreciates the property owner allowing the nativity scene where it is, but said the private group that funded the display was told it would go on the square for the citizens of Centerville among the other decorations that are on the lawns.

Angran called moving the display “very deceitful.” No petition was brought to the council, no public conversation, no chance to respond and no notification to everyone who helped pay for the display.

Angran cited the Supreme Court decision of 1984 in Lynch v. Donnelly. He said according to the Court’s opinion, erecting a nativity scene in the public square does not encourage any religious beliefs. Instead, it reminds the local townspeople of their unique American heritage. Nativity scenes have had a significant place in American history, but in two centuries of use, the meaning has changed from a religious symbol to a secular and commercial commodity.

He said he was asked in an interview what the people of Centerville are like.

“I told them they were southern Iowa people, salt-of-the-earth people, hard-working farmers, blue-collar working people, Americans, God-fearing,” Angran said. “I was raised in southern Iowa and left for 40 years. Everywhere I went that root has stayed with me.”

Angran said he, along with the petition, is asking the nativity scene to be moved back to the square.

“With all due respect, we did not purchase it for Mr. Stover or his property,” Angran said. “We purchased it, in my opinion, for the citizens of Centerville to be placed on the city square. So please, put it back.”

O’Connor told Angran that he had heard the recommendation.

“I think it’s safe to say for the next nine days, the nativity scene is going to stay where it is,” O’Connor said.

Angran told the council that he has been in contact with Liberty Counsel. He was told the city needs to put the nativity scene back on the square and Liberty Counsel said it would fight the battle for the city of Centerville. The city of Centerville would not have to pay one dime.

O’Connor rushed the next speaker, reminding those in attendance they had three minutes and the council has “got other things they need to get to.”

The next speaker asked if anyone on the council had talked with neighboring Albia to find out how its nativity scene has stayed on the square for so long.

“I think that it really bothers a lot of people in Centerville to think that an atheist group would actually be guiding this town on some of their decisions,” he said. “The council and the city needs to stand up to them because you just heard what he said, we’ve got people willing to pay the legal fees.”

O’Connor called for one more speaker and said he wanted to “wrap it up.”

Kathy Perry of Centerville spoke. She said she moved to Centerville in February of 1991.

“I am a Christian and I am very proud to be a Christian,” she said. “I would die for my God. But what I don’t like is being lied to.”

Perry said she called the city on Tuesday morning to find out what was happening. She left a message for Fraser, but she still has not received a return call. She then was put through to O’Connor.

“I did vote for you,” she said. “I will not vote for you again. You are a liar.”

Perry went on to define what a liar is but was cut off. She said she has no problem with atheists or wiccans or satanists who want to put their stuff up for display.

“I think that’s great,” she said. “I’m for everybody to have a say.”

If she doesn’t like it, she said, she doesn’t have to look at it. And that’s a two-way street.

She wanted to know who complained, but that question was not answered.

She said she called O’Connor a liar because he told her he wasn’t happy about it being moved and did not know who was moving it.

“You were right there when it was moved, sir,” she said. “I talked to you on Tuesday, which was the very next day. That’s why I claim that I was lied to and I won’t vote for you.”

She argued that there are many other decorations on the square that are secular and the nativity scene should be returned.

O’Connor wanted to stop the public comments at that point, but pastor Brad Dittmer was allowed to speak.

Dittmer said he was there when the scene was moved off the square, but he was not happy about it. He was there because he helped construct the scene and did not want it torn down or messed up.

“Though I’m not an attorney, to say that we cannot have a nativity on the square because of legal reasons, I’m really having a hard time with,” he said. “Because there are a number of other decorations up there. I believe it fits in nicely.”

Dittmer talked about the Santa house on the northwest corner of the square. He said there are presents around.

“I believe from a legal standpoint, we should be able to have the nativity up there as well,” he said.

He said while the group of people wanting the nativity scene put back at the square may be very passionate, “they’re not ignorant. They’ve done some research as well.”

“I would agree that it’s a beautiful place where it’s at right now,” he said. “But from a legal standpoint, I believe we should be able to have it on the square.”

O’Connor allowed one final speaker, Beau Reeves.

“I am a proud atheist,” he said. “I do not believe in God and I do not believe in Jesus and I do not think I should be able to go into a courthouse where I pay my taxes, pay for my license, pay for everything, should not have to see Jesus.”

He said he doesn’t believe in Christmas at all.

“The fact that the church has spent 10 grand on a nativity scene but still can’t fix the drug addiction in this town or the mental health issues in this town or the kids who aren’t getting presents this year in this town, but they have the money to spend 10 grand on a nativity scene is a little wrong to me,” he added. “I should not have to see baby Jesus on the courthouse lawn because I pay taxes, that courthouse, I help maintain with my taxes.”

Doc Sokol, a councilman, said this is “the way America is these days.” He said one shoe bomber got on a flight and now everyone has to take their shoes off to board a plane.

Dillard, who took the anonymous concerns about the nativity scene to Fraser, told those in the crowd that the government must represent every single person that lives in the city.

“We do not rule by majority,” he said.

If just one person lives in town who doesn’t agree with the nativity scene, Dillard said, then the government must represent that person.

“We’re required by the document that holds this country together to be fair across the board,” Dillard said. “I promise you, in this instance, we are being fair across the board.”

Perry was eventually escorted out of the meeting because of interruptions.

The final action at Monday night’s meeting was a bit ironic. The city swore in its 2020 city council. It appears every member swore in on a Bible.

Video of the meeting starts at about the 23-minute mark. It can be seen on GoPitchTV’s Facebook page.

The Iowa Standard is a free online news source so we can reach as many people as possible. But we need to raise money! We are asking our readers to help support us as a news alternative entering 2020. If you could, please consider showing a sign of support to The Iowa Standard by making a contribution here.  Or, you can use Venmo and make a contribution to @Iowa-Standard-2018. 

You could also send a check to:
PO Box 112
Sioux Center, IA 51250

Author: Jacob Hall