One entity does not want a nativity scene somewhere over Rainbow City, Ala. government property, and its staff just challenged a state representative regarding his involvement in city activities planned for this Christmas outside City Hall. The issue comes one year after a controversy involving a city-owned nativity light display.
Freedom from Religion Foundation attorney Andrew Seidel sent State Rep. Mack Butler (R-Rainbow City) a letter Dec. 4, addressed to him at the Alabama State House, to request all records relating to the upcoming "Night at the Nativity" event. The request included emails, communications, contracts, financial records and any records of payments made to rent government property.
The letter cites the Alabama Open Records Act.
"Private citizen" Mack Butler responded to the foundation's request, according to The Gadsden Times, saying he has not acted in his official capacity as an Alabama representative while helping organize the event. "You wrote me in my capacity as a state legislator. Presumably, I would have a duty to provide you with public records that were generated in my capacity as a public official," he stated.
Butler indicated he fully understands the restriction of public officials being foreclosed from acting in their official capacities for the advancement of religion, particularly on public property. "I have not acted in that capacity, and I am not aware of others who have."
Butler said he corroborated with Rainbow City Mayor Terry John Calhoun, but there are no communications, documents or contracts to disclose. Both said city staffers are not involved in the event, as reported by The Gadsden Times, and that the events' organizers plan to meet at the city hall parking lot but have not rented the property or reserved it.
Calhoun told The Times that members of the public used the parking lot area for other activities without charge or city involvement, such as the online yard sale groups whose members meet there to exchange merchandise.
Butler said the "Night at the Nativity" event will be after City Hall closes at 6 p.m. next Wednesday, Dec. 23, so that it will not intrude on city functions.
He said the plans included a live nativity, hot chocolate, cookies and "an old-fashioned celebration of the birth of Christ." Several churches have expressed interest in meeting for the event instead of having Wednesday worship at their churches, he added. On social media, the event is listed as being sponsored by White Springs Baptist Church.
During December 2014, Rainbow City had a nativity scene as part of the holiday decorations on the lawn at City Hall. The foundation threatened legal action, arguing the nativity scene presented "an inherently Christian message on government property." After taking it down, the city replaced it a day later. Shortly after more than 500 people turned out for a demonstration to support the city. After the conflict last year, the nativity scene was given to a Rainbow City business. It's displayed this year on private property opposite City Hall, rather than on its lawn.