Crime & Courts

Charleston Fire department restores Nativity scene along with other seasonal icons

The Nativity scene at Charleston Fire Station 12, removed last week after the city received a written complaint from a national First Amendment watchdog organization, was restored Tuesday once city officials decided to enhance the creche with other holiday decorations, according to the fire department.

"After analyzing its options, the city and fire department determined that to make sure the holiday decorations are in compliance with the laws, the fire department is adding decorations to the Nativity scene to include a Jewish Hanukkah menorah, Kwanzaa Kinara, Santa Claus, elves and reindeer," fire department officials announced in a news release.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Wisconsin, with chapters in Pennsylvania and Alabama and 14,000 members across the country, sent a letter dated Dec. 17 to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Fire Chief Thomas Carr asking the city to remove the Nativity scene at Fire Station 12. By Thursday, it was gone, though an illuminated cross remained in front of the building.

The organization's staff attorney, Rebecca S. Kratz, said the modified display is probably OK.

"In terms of the Nativity," she said, "if you muddy it up with secular decorations, federal courts have deemed it permissible."

At least two other Nativity scenes are displayed at fire stations belonging to the St. Andrew's Public Service District, a taxpayer-funded firefighting operation in unincorporated areas west of the Ashley River.

The displays could be seen Tuesday at St. Andrew's district headquarters on Ashley River Road near Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, and at Fire Station 3 on Ashley River Road near Church Creek.

St. Andrew's fire officials said the creches are part of Christmas displays that have been mounted at these stations for decades.

"We're not trying to force religion on anyone," said Ray Gorham, battalion chief at district headquarters. It's tradition, he said, an expression of culture and holiday cheer, not dogma.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation received several complaints about the displays and is investigating, according to Kratz.

Since the issue was made public Monday, the fire department and mayor's office have been flooded with phone calls, mostly from people expressing support for the displays, according to fire department spokesman Mark Ruppel. The city's legal department is in discussions with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he said.

Fire officials expressed dismay.

Said St. Andrew's district manager Charles Feather, "I've never seen anything so ridiculously blown out of proportion in my life."