Charleston SC Fire Dept. Bows To Pressure, Removes Nativity Scene

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The Charleston fire department has removed a nativity display from a station after getting a complaint that it was an unconstitutional endorsement of one religion.

The manger scene was removed from Fire Station 12 after city officials received a letter from the group Freedom from Religion Foundation, which works for the separation of church and state.

Putting the creche on city property "unmistakably sends the message that the city of Charleston endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display," staff attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote in the letter, dated Dec. 17, to Mayor Joe Riley and Fire Chief Thomas Carr. "Once the city enters into the religion business ... it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship."

According to the letter, someone complained to the Madison, Wis.-based group. The letter noted the fire station has displayed the nativity annually since at least 2004. Kratz thanked the fire department for at least not displaying an "illuminated Latin cross (the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity) atop the firehouse roof," as it had in 2008.

The nativity scene was removed last week in response, The Post and Courier of Charleston reported Monday.

On Sunday, no creche could be seen, but a large, white illuminated cross was leaning against a stone memorial to the nine Charleston firefighters who died in the June 2007 furniture store blaze.

Firefighters at the station told the paper it was not part of a Christmas display.

Charleston's legal department advised officials to remove the display, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings on promoting one religion over another, said fire department spokesman Mark Ruppel.

"The creche is the universal symbol of Christianity, and therefore, based on the law, it was removed from the fire station," city officials said in a release. "The city and the fire department fully support everyone's right to practice his or her religion in our city."

A number of Charleston fire stations have Christmas decorations, but those include Santa Claus, lights and the words "Merry Christmas" on a painted fire truck decoration.

On removal of the nativity, the Christian group's president, Oran Smith, said Monday, "It appears the Charleston fire house had not followed current law as handed down by the Supreme Court, but that's not to say it isn't frustrating to those of us who think a manger scene shouldn't be controversial."

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