New Castle News

Mitchel Olszak

December 26, 2011

Mitchel Olszak: Ellwood doing right thing to take down Nativity

NEW CASTLE — Sometimes I look at human activity and think to myself:

Am I really part of this species?

It’s a question that pops up frequently this time of year, as bizarre and bitter battles rage over Christmas.

It starts with the ever-expanding crass commercialism of the season, which now begins the moment kids take off their Halloween costumes.

Some people object to the transformation of Christmas into a major economic event. But if they stand in the way of this evolving tradition, they’re likely to be trampled by Black Friday crowds in search of bargains.

Then there are the folks who get their knickers in a twist when sales clerks greet them with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Personally, I’m grateful for anything more cordial than a grunt of recognition.

And, of course, we always have battles over Christmas displays on public property. They are either too sacred or too secular. No matter what, someone will complain.

For the last couple of Christmases, we have been able to observe one of these confrontations close to home. A Nativity scene, which has been a common sight this time of year in front of the Ellwood City Municipal Building, has been a focal point in our nation’s culture war.

The genuine plastic crèche has been on display on public property for the past 55 years, with little in the way of fuss. But last year, a group from the Midwest that opposes the melding of religion and government, threatened legal action if the Nativity scene remained on borough property.

The reaction from this effort was predictable. At one level, local folks objected to outsiders stirring up controversy over something that hadn’t been a problem for more than a half-century.

And then there were people who see nothing wrong with combining government and religion — at least so long at it’s their faith that’s favored. They view criticism of Ellwood’s crèche as just one more attempt to wring all references to religion from civic life.

For many of these individuals, religion is a founding precept of America, going back to the days when Europeans arrived here to escape persecution (and frequently impose their own).

When it came time to draft the United States Constitution, the men responsible for the task were well aware of this tendency to use the power of government to demand religious obedience. They bent over backward to produce a document that does no such thing.

You can read the Constitution forward and back and find no mention of God. And the only references to religion are those that prevent the mixing of politics and faith.

Religion, at its best, is a rich part of American culture. And it finds its way into all manner of things, including the front yard of the Ellwood City borough building.

But that is about to end. Last week, Ellwood’s council voted to have the crèche moved elsewhere next year. The whole squabble has stirred up a lot of reaction.

Yet it’s the proverbial tempest in a teapot. The Nativity scene will wind up on display on private property. People desperate to see it will have the opportunity to do so. And contrary to complaints that religious fervor is being squelched in America, Christmas displays of all sorts abound across the nation.

On the other hand, having a Nativity at the borough building, is no big deal. The real problem is the potential can of worms it opens.

By presenting the Nativity, the borough creates a space for speech. It can’t allow one display and deny others. Ellwood City may be ending a tradition, but it’s probably saving itself a lot of pointless grief.

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Mitchel Olszak
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