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Bucksport, Maine can’t quite figure out what to do with a Nativity scene on public property now that an atheist has asked for similar treatment. For the past week, rather than allow a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to put up a secular display in the same location, they just took down the Nativity display, a decision that had ignorant people in town whining about persecution.

Those whiners don’t understand why the Nativity is a problem. For decades now, the manger scene has been displayed on Main Street without any controversy. That doesn’t make it okay, much less legal. But this winter, the Maine chapter of FFRF requested that one of its own signs go up in the same area. The group’s poster celebrates the Winter Solstice (“the real reason for the season”) and features Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington surrounding the Statue of Liberty, while looking at a “baby” Bill of Rights in a manger.

It was a straightforward request. After all, if the town allows a Christian display on public property, they can’t reject a non-Christian display that meets all their guidelines. The town’s lawyer soon confirmed that the atheists were correct and said that local officials had to decide whether to take down the Nativity, give it to a private group, or allow other holiday displays to join the manger scene.

Incredibly, while they debated what to do, Town Manager Susan Lessard and her colleagues chose to take down the Nativity. It was a legally safe move, but that didn’t stop the controversy from making headlines. Several citizens shared this sentiment:

“Of course the nativity scene has very personal significance, but it’s also part of the heritage of Bucksport,” said [The Lighthouse Gallery owner Kathy] James.

It’s very easy to cite “heritage” when it’s promoting something you agree with. Just ask the people in the South who still fly Confederate flags.

But it’s not like FFRF-Maine’s President Tom Waddell demanded the Nativity come down. He put forth a simple solution to the problem:

“They may decide to give [the Nativity display] to a church and that church may ask the Jud Prouty house behind us to put it on their private property. That would be a win-win situation,” said Waddell.

Basically, Waddell said the town could move the manger to private property and keep the public space free of religious displays. It was a perfectly sensible idea that maintained religious neutrality by the government. The atheist group wasn’t simply demanding that the Nativity get yanked in Bucksport; the members just wanted equal treatment.

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In fact, in a letter to the local Bucksport Enterprise (in print), Waddell made clear his group’s position:

The Maine Chapter – FFRF does not oppose any religion. We oppose laws that seek to privilege one religious group over another under the guise of “freedom of religion”. The practice of religion should not entail discrimination against anyone.

The Maine Chapter – FFRF did not cause the removal of the nativity scene. We did make the town aware that keeping the nativity scene on public property requires the town to allow other groups to set up their display as well.

On Thursday night, during a Town Council meeting, there was a lengthy discussion about how to move forward without running afoul of the law. (It begins around the 07:30 mark.) For nearly an hour, several citizens demanded a continuation of their Christian privilege. At one point, to give you a flavor of the comments, one lady claimed the atheists would come after the “American flag” next. (That’s not on the agenda, I assure you.)

The discussion ended with a decision to temporarily resurrect the Nativity display… while putting the FFRF poster at another public location. It’s not exactly equal treatment. Waddell told me he saw it as a “stop-gap measure.”

Bucksport officials said they would come up with a more permanent solution when they meet next month. If they want to avoid any troubles, they need to decide whether all holiday displays that meet their guidelines will be accepted and presented in the same way… or whether they should get out of the religious display business altogether since the Nativity scene isn’t worth the hassle.

The latter option is the better one. But as we know all too well, that doesn’t mean local leaders will choose the path of common sense.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.