The WAC’s Woman’s Achievement Club) life-size nativity is on display as usual during the Christmas season. While several churches and private individuals offered to house the 18-piece creche following an ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) warning to county leaders last December, the display appears in its traditional spot on the Thayer County Courthouse lawn.
In a letter to County Attorney Dan Werner last December, ACLU attorney Amy A. Miller reminded county leaders that it is illegal to display on government property scenes that are “solely religious, without secular non-religious components.” Werner told the commissioners at the time that even though members of the WAC and owners of the nativity were multi-denominational, the nativity itself represented only one religious belief.
In order for the nativity to keep its traditional location, Miller suggested adding secular non-religious items such as snowmen, signs saying “Season’s Greetings,” candy canes, etc. She also suggested opening the courthouse lawn to all types of expression including the current religious display.
In their final meeting of 2010, Dave Bruning, Chris Frye and Dean Krueger ruled that they would allow secular items to off-set the nativity’s singular message, and felt that the added items would in no way take away from its message.
In so doing, the commissioners had the large inflatable snowman that generally sits inside the entryway to the courthouse moved outside to the lawn where it can be viewed as easily as the other display. They also had courthouse maintenance man Gary Watson find an old set of carolers, dust them off and display them above the arch on the front of building. Large red 3-foot tall letters spelling the word “joy” complete the project, so far.
Taking the ACLU’s suggestions a step further, the commissioners asked for volunteers to set up the nativity at no cost to the county and posted signs stating anyone who might be interested in placing a Christmas decoration on the courthouse lawn could contact them for permission. Displays are subject to approval by the county leaders, the sign states.
Werner said last December that the commissioners have never denied or approved requests to display nonreligious items or other secular messages during the Advent or Christmas season, because they have never received any.
The Nativity has been displayed on the courthouse lawn since 1959 and was begun as a Business and Professional Women’s club project. Now owned by the WAC, the complete set includes two angels, three kings, two shepherds, three sheep, one ram, two camels, the donkey, and a cow. The life-sized fiberglass collection, displayed throughout the Christmas season and costing around $1,000 for each piece, also has special lighting and a stable.