Over the last 30 years, Bill Ratchford has served in a variety of municipal jobs in his hometown of Woodson Terrace (population 4,362) in North County. And all during that time span, a nativity scene has been an annual visitor to the town hall's lawn.
This year, though, the creche was involved in what's becoming a new type of holiday-season story, right up there with lines at the mall and the need for more bell-ringers. The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM), at the request of a resident, asked the city to take the nativity scene down. Rather than going through a prolonged legal wrangle and probably losing, the city followed the ACLU-EM's suggestion with only a mild fuss.
"A lady from town turned us in to the ACLU," says Ratchford, who's in his second term as mayor. "They basically sent us a letter telling us we had to take it down, and our lawyers advised us we should because of the possible legal fees involved." Without animus, he adds, "It just never struck me as a problem. We've been doing it for years here. No one ever complained before."
When word got out that the scene was being removed, Ratchford says, some 40 residents offered to move it to their property. The Stroot family wound up the recipients of the classic replicas of Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, shepherds and animals.
"It's about 6 feet off of our property line," the mayor says, "10 feet at the most. It's in the yard next door. That was the closest. We took it down, and the family took it over there after work."
A protest was registered, though. "People have been 100 percent against it," says Ratchford of incoming phone calls. "One lady in the neighborhood rallied about 90 people in four hours to come out here when it was moved. They were singing carols. There were a couple signs but nothing vicious. That was it, really -- if it's in the law, it's in the law."
So far, says the ACLU-EM, the organization's efforts have meant that five local municipalities have taken down displays this year or didn't put them up as they had in the past. "While we're sympathetic that people are upset by it taken down, they need to realize that the separation of church and state is a part of our religious freedom," says ACLU-EM executive director Deborah Jacobs. "People's private property is the place to celebrate Christmas; it's not the role of government."
For now, Woodson Terrace is flying its flag at half-staff. Perhaps it could be worse (as it was in Belleville, Ill.): The city could have seen its Baby Jesus swiped, taken to a saloon or worse.
"No," says Ratchford. "We've never had that problem.