BARTOW, Fla. – When a church group put a Nativity scene on public property, officials warned it might open the door to other religious – and not-so-religious – displays. They were right.
Since the Nativity was erected in Polk County, displays have gone up honoring Zoroastrianism and the fake holiday Festivus, featured on the TV show “Seinfeld.”
The Polk County Commission voted 4-1 Wednesday to permit the Nativity scene to remain across the street from the courthouse, as well as to make that area a “public forum” open to any type of display.
But the commission insisted that unless someone claims a particular display and submits a written request asking it remain, it would be removed. By Wednesday evening, no one had claimed the Festivus display, and the commission said it would come down; a woman claimed the Zoroastrianism display, which was to stay.
The debate began Dec. 15 when a handmade creche with the figures of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus was erected by a Bible study group from the First Baptist Church of Bartow.
“The real spirit of Christmas is the birth of Christ,” said Marvin Pittman, a retired law enforcement officer and parishioner. “We felt it needs to be in the public eye, so we did it.”
Other displays are fine, too, he said, adding, “If somebody wants to do that, it’s their right.”
And true to form, the site almost immediately sprouted alternative displays, including a simple sign that reads: “Festivus for the Rest of Us – Donated to Polk County by the Seinfeld Fan Club.”
The display, a reference to the fake holiday featured on an episode of the television sitcom, did not include the totem of Festivus – a bare aluminum pole instead of a tree. Key rituals of Festivus include accusing others of being a disappointment and wrestling.
Another display celebrating Zoroastrianism was erected by Stella Darby, who wanted to encourage people to research the ancient Persian religion.
Richard Blank, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, objected to the Nativity scene’s presence on public property, arguing it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
“The Nativity scene is totally celebratory of the birth of Christ,” he said. “Not everyone subscribes to that, and those who do should put it on their own property.”
But a board member who voted to allow the creche as part of the “public forum” disagreed with Blank. “A group had asked to display a scene important to their beliefs; I felt we shouldn’t suppress their right to do so,” said Commissioner Samuel K. Johnson.