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FEW NATIVITY SCENES RING IN YULE

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A year has passed, and Rick Earnshaw is still angry.

City Hall without an outdoor Nativity scene makes the holiday seem a bit incomplete, said the Woods Cross man. The longtime community Christmas tradition, he adds, was foiled by outsiders.Last December, the Woods Cross City Council avoided a possible legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union by heeding a high court ruling that creches on public property violate the separation of church and state.

While many residents understood the council's reluctant decision to nix the Nativity scene, their ire toward the ACLU remains.

"I still think the whole situation was ridiculous," said Earnshaw. "The reason why we celebrate Christmas is to recognize the birth of Christ. I'm a lifelong resident of Woods Cross, and we were told what to do by someone who doesn't live here."

Woods Cross was among the last cities in Utah to erect a Nativity scene in front of City Hall. Of the Wasatch Front cities surveyed by the Deseret News, only Ogden sponsors a traditional manger scene at the city park - some distance from municipal buildings.

"Our Nativity has been a part of the traditional Christmas Village at the park for years; we've never had any complaints," said Linda Peterson, Ogden Administrative Services spokeswoman. "The scene is just one of many holiday displays; it's certainly not the focal point."

A live Nativity scene presented by a Highland church group at the city's park has been displayed in the past few years, but Highland officials are uncertain if they'll have one this year.

Other cities got rid of their creches before anyone had a chance to call foul.

For two years in the mid-1980s, South Jordan sponsored a Nativity scene outside the city's fire department but scrapped the display after learning of the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the practice.

In a 5-4 decision that year, justices said that displaying a Christmas Nativity scene inside the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pa., violated constitutionally required separation of church and state because it appeared to endorse religious principles.

"Nobody ever called to complain about the Nativity until we decided not to use it," said former South Jordan city manager Richard Warne. "A lot of residents liked the display, and they were upset that it was no longer being used."

Murray city also hosted an annual Nativity scene in the 1970s - replete with an elevated star and life-size statues of wise men, shepherds, Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Apprentices from local electrical vocational programs were even called in to help wire the popular display at Ken Price baseball field in Murray Park.

"The Nativity scene was not used for a few years, and the city decided not to use the display at all after the church-and-state issues were brought up," said Murray Mayor Lynn Pett.

Most local cities, including Murray, now opt to dress up City Hall with secular holiday decorations.

Colored lights, snowflakes, carolers and other Christmas favorites mark the season in municipal offices in Sandy, Bluffdale, Salt Lake, Riverton, Santaquin, Kaysville, South Salt Lake, West Valley, American Fork and Lehi.

Others cities never sponsored Nativities, say officials.

"We don't have a display, and there's never really been any kind of (public) call for one," said Clearfield city manager Jack Bippes. "We decorate trees and Santa Clauses instead of anything religious."

An administrator in a small Utah County city joked, "We hardly have the money to buy a Christmas tree, let alone a Nativity scene."

Although most cities have shied away from religious holiday observances, local churches generally fill the void. In fact, live Nativity scenes in front of several Utah County chapels are so popular that they've become a "community" event.

Meanwhile, Earnshaw and his Woods Cross neighbors still visit the city's traditional Nativity scene - albeit in a slightly different spot. The city agreed to lease the creche for five years to Earnshaw and other residents.

Their asking price? $1.

"We've got the old Nativity scene just kitty-corner to City Hall on a piece of private property; it looks good," said Earnshaw.