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Away goes the manger at Wadena city park after legal threat

The little Lord Jesus is no longer allowed to lay down his sweet head on Wadena city property.

The little Lord Jesus is no longer allowed to lay down his sweet head on Wadena city property.

David Evans has labored for the city of Wadena for 23 years. And every year around the second half of November, the Electric & Water Department superintendent and his crew would retrieve from storage the pieces of the city-owned nativity scene. The workers would dust off the plaster and plastic figures that dated back to the 1960s. A couple logs, some straw, and an angel affixed to the roof of the manger made for a morning's worth of work for a three-man crew. A spotlight supplied the luminous glow. 

In years past, the Christmas display was located on public property at the band shell. In 2014 it got moved some 200 feet west to open space within Burlington Northern Park where nearby sidewalks had been rehabbed. 

"It's been part of the lighting and decorations we put up every year. That includes garland with lights around street poles and lights on side streets that feature candles, Christmas trees, and stars," Evans says. "Since I've worked for the city, there's only been one time when we didn't set it up. That was, well, I don't remember exactly when, but some years back, and it was because Mary, Joseph, and the baby were getting repainted and refurbished. It's been a tradition around here for as far back as I can remember."

Until 2015. 

Wadena officials received a letter earlier this year from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit headquartered in Madison that works to "protect the constitutional separation between church and state." Staff attorney Patrick Elliot's letter said his office had received a complaint from a Wadena resident, who was chafed because the Christian iconography was on public land. Elliot said the nativity scene was a violation "for showing preference for, and endorsing one religion."

"Once the City enters into the religion business," Elliot continued, "conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers and community residents of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship.… [W]e request that you remove this display and ensure that it will not return."

Wadena resident Tyler Rud, who's Facebook page describes him as an atheist and Constitutional Conservative Libertarian, first wrote city officials in January.

"I am requesting that the City immediately remove any and all religious displays on all government property whether it is outside on public property or if it is inside a government building," read his letter published in the Wadena Pioneer Journal.

According to previous news reports, Rud, who graduated from Wadena-Deer Creek High School and has lived in Wadena for nine years, said he approached the Foundation only after he got no response from officials. 

Rud couldn't be reached for comment yesterday. All listed phone numbers under his name were disconnected. 

"There are many churches, businesses, private homes where a nativity scene may be placed," Foundation attorney Elliot says. "When we're dealing with a constitutional issue, it's not a matter of a majority rule.… While there may be a minority of the community who might not want government to endorse a religious display, they have that right. It may be an unpopular position, but under our constitution, it's the right decision."   

Wadena's nativity scene is moving, but it's not going away.

On Tuesday night the Wadena City Council voted to donate the display to the local Ministerial Association, which can showcase the scene on private property.

Mayor George Deiss tells City Pages the group of local pastors will put it up in time for the Christmas season at a still to be determined location.

"The nativity scene will continue to be a tradition in our community," says Deiss. "Just at a new location on private property."