When an atheist group mailed Belen, N.M., city leaders a complaint about a nativity scene placed on property across from City Hall, Belen officials initiated a new "Follow the Star to Bethlehem" initiative, which became the city's biggest Christmas occasion ever. Belen, a city founded in 1740, is Spanish for Bethlehem. It reportedly was named by two Spaniards deliberately in honor of Bethlehem, making this complaint a bit more personal than usual.
Wisconsin-based atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, first sent the city a letter this summer demanding the removal of the nativity setup. The foundation promotes the separation of church and state and contacts city governments and public schools regarding topics deemed to be endorsing religion.
However, a nativity scene is a long-standing feature of Theresa Tabet Park, which is across the street from City Hall, according to a broadcast of KOAT-TV in Albuquerque, N.M. The city observed its 275th birthday on Dec. 9, celebrating its many traditions.
In response to the complaint, by August, a Facebook page called "Rally for Religious Liberty in Belen" was started, and many residents began to coordinate efforts "to protect the city's heritage."
Belen mayor Jerah Cordova told KOAT despite the threat of a lawsuit, he was not aware of any court filings. He said the foundation leaders sent a couple of letters. "We stood strong, we stood tall and will continue to do so as a community, and we'll continue to celebrate who we are."
Cordova, along with pastors who coordinated the "Follow the Star to Bethlehem" event, said in the KOAT piece that the foundation's efforts backfired because hundreds of people packed the parking lot outside City Hall for a Bethlehem recreation. Two performances of a play titled "The Nativity" were accompanied by a choir and orchestra from First Baptist Church of Los Lunas. Re-enactors wore clothing in the style of the first century. Vendors also provided craft booths as well as a few dozen animals, including a camel.
The mayor said letters geared toward preventing occurrences, such as a traditional nativity scene, only rile people up, leading them to express more support for religious freedom than they previously did.
Ray Jaramillo, the senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley, said about 12 pastors from different area churches organized the 2015 "Follow the Star to Bethlehem" event. "People are concerned about their freedom of religion. We're trying to say we're not going to go in a corner and hide anymore, we're going to stand up and proclaim what we believe," he told KOAT.
Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham posted support for Belen city officials on Facebook Saturday: "The infamous Freedom from Religion Foundation picked the wrong town to mess with this time. The mayor said the town's iconic nativity wasn't going anywhere, and local churches put together a huge Follow the Star to Bethlehem event. Several more people throughout the town also erected nativities in addition to the original one."
"It's about time we as Christians get 'riled up' about our religious freedoms! We need to stand up for the things of Jesus Christ and God's Word. Way to go Belen!" Graham cheered.