N.M. town fights to keep Nativity

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BELEN, N.M. — For nearly a quarter of a century, a year-round Nativity scene made of metal has rested in the little town of Belen, N.M.

Now Belen — Spanish for Bethlehem — is fighting to keep the Nativity scene on city property, and officials may even sell the land to a private owner to preserve the iconic art.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wants Belen to remove the images and is threatening legal action if it’s not removed from public land.

“The position of the city is that the Nativity scene will stay right where it is. Period,” Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova told The Associated Press. “I know within the city itself almost everyone supports the Nativity scene.”

Still, Cordova said the city has weighed options like selling the property to moving it to another location.

Cordova said those who oppose the Nativity scene are “outsiders” who don’t understand the history and culture of New Mexico — a former Spanish territory with deep Hispanic and spiritual Catholic ties.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said Belen is violating the U.S. Constitution by having the religious art on city property and the city is discriminating against nonbelievers who likely won’t speak out.

“It’s absurd to say because the town’s name is Belen they should be allowed to have a Nativity scene,” Gaylor said. “There a Mecca, Calif. So what?”

She says if Belen puts the property up for sale, her foundation will make sure the city follows state bidding law. The foundation may even bid on the property and would replace the art with a monument to nonbelievers, Gaylor said.

The artwork honors a late artist who used to erect a Nativity scene on the site each year.

There are no religious references next to it, no mention of Jesus. The recognizable image of a baby in a manger surrounded by a mother, father and animals lets viewers know it’s a Nativity scene. Above it are the words: Bethlehem Belen.

Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the Freedom From Religion Foundation is part of a movement of mainly atheists and agnostics that challenges purported violations of the separation of church and state.

The town of 7,000 people is nearly 70 percent Latino and is one of many New Mexico municipalities with Catholic and Christian images on public lands, largely due to their historic significance. Las Cruces, N.M., for example, is Spanish for “The Crosses” and contains three crosses on its city seal. A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the seal 10 years ago.