Prineville’s nativity scene controversy cools

Park district offers seven slots, but only creche on display

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin


Published Dec 10, 2013 at 12:01AM / Updated Dec 10, 2013 at 06:48AM

Three years after a dispute erupted over the display of a Nativity scene at Prineville City Hall, the city appears to have found a compromise that’s working.

In 2010, the city received complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisc., nonprofit that provides legal assistance on separation of church and state issues. A local resident had alerted the foundation about the display outside the front door of City Hall, and the foundation advised the city the display amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity.

The city-owned Nativity display was taken down early and placed in storage, and Prineville resident Bob Orlando picked up where the city left off. For the last two years, Orlando has rented from the park district the plaza adjacent to City Hall and set up his own Nativity scene. Others have put up their own holiday displays alongside Orlando’s, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which installed a winter solstice sign describing religion as a “myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Jeannie Searcy, business manager for the park district, said it has made some changes this year. Where before the entire plaza was rented to Orlando and it was up to him to decide what other displays could go in, this year the park district has designated seven spots in the plaza available to anyone who wants to put up a display.

Orlando said he allowed everyone who approached him to put up their displays over the last two years but is happy to step back if it helps cool the controversy.

“We’ve satisfied every complaint they’ve had,” Orlando said. “Their last complaint was me being gatekeeper of the plaza and that’s satisfied now.”

Patrick Elliott, staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the switch to the park district doling out the spaces in the plaza is a positive development. However, if the Nativity scene remains the only display at the plaza, it could still suggest an endorsement of Christianity by the city.

Elliott said it should be clear to a reasonable observer that the display was not erected by the city and that others are free to put up their own displays if they choose. The use of a public space to install a passive display that takes a position — whether it be religious, commercial, political or otherwise — is potentially problematic from a Constitutional point of view, Elliott said.

“These public places, people have a wide ability to picket, protest, demonstrate, hand out leaflets — but you don’t generally have a right to plop down your sign for 30 days and expect it to remain there,” he said.

Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe said while she’d like to see additional displays in the plaza, either secular or religious, many of the people who’ve put up installations during the past two years have turned their attention to “Christmas in the Pines,” a new event being staged at the Crook County Fairgrounds. Christmas in the Pines is a collection of holiday displays created by local residents that can be viewed on a drive-through loop through the fairgrounds.

Roppe said when the Nativity scene controversy originally emerged in the month before she took office, hundreds of Prineville residents urged the city to launch a legal fight to keep the display. Ultimately, she and the other councilors decided they’d be better off finding a compromise than trying to defend a tenuous position in court.

“Because we’d lose. I’ve seen other cities that did that — Eugene did that; they didn’t want to take the cross off (Skinner Butte) and they lost,” she said.

Elliott said there are no plans to put up his group’s sign this year — the member who put up the sign in the past has moved out of Prineville, and other members are reluctant to speak out publicly.

“I know it’s a small community, and they don’t want to be treated differently because of their religious beliefs, so they’re afraid to be seen placing the sign,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com