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Wadena residents fight back after city's nativity scene was outlawed

Hundreds of nativity scenes have been put up since a legal threat removed one from a city park.

Hundreds of nativity scenes have been put up since a legal threat removed one from a city park.

The public display of Christmas cheer has been a bone of contention in the city of Wadena located about 160 miles northwest of the Twin Cities for almost a year now.

It began with a letter in early 2015 to city officials via the pages of the Wadena Pioneer Journal. Local resident Tyler Rud, a self-described atheist and Constitutional Conservative Libertarian, had a beef with the nativity scene erected on city property.

"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 newspaper.

Wadena officials never acknowledged his complaint, according to Rud, who graduated from Wadena-Deer Creek High School and has lived in Wadena for nine years. It was at that point he sought out expert legal help from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, that works to "protect the constitutional separation between church and state."  

The city soon received correspondence from staff attorney Patrick Elliot, which 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."

As the holiday season approached this year, Wadena officials had a choice. They could erect the scene as had been done for perhaps as long as a half century on public property and likely find themselves in court, or they could follow the advice proffered by Elliot who wrote, "There are many churches, businesses, private homes where a nativity scene may be placed. 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."

In mid-November city officials chose the latter, voting to sell the display to the Wadena Ministerial Association, which could showcase the scene on private property. The display's new home is the lawn of the old hospital on the main road that runs through town.

But for some Wadena citizens, this compromise would not do. A Wadena Nativity Display Facebook page sprang up, full of people upset with the decision. Wrote page founder Dani Sworski in an email: “Let’s shower the town with Nativity scenes, let’s share our faith!”

No one knows the exact number, yet nativity scenes might now outnumber Wadena's 4,000 residents. In addition to the untold number of displays on private lawns, downtown has become ground zero for the movement, which includes four sets in the windows of the Ben Franklin Crafts store and three at the Boondocks Café. 

“I’m really proud of my town. I’m hoping we lit a little spark and the rest of the nation will catch on,” Wadena Mayor George Deiss told the Star Tribune's Jennifer Brooks recently.

The mayor's home alone boasts “eight or nine” nativity scenes on his property.