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Twenty years ago 3,000 gathered;
‘We Want the Manger, Not the ACLU’
Dim the lights. Cue the movie preview reel:
“Christmastime Lititz 1993” (Dissolve):
Movie trailer voice-over:
“Now. For the first time in 20 years, a beloved story of Christmas spirit is retold.
A fable rooted into our modern culture encapsulates a tale of hope, character and redemption that has affected Lititz more than any story ever told.
The ACLU called the borough’s Nativity unconstitutional. The town called them unconscionable.”
Pan to silent crowd carrying signs:
“We Want the Manger,
Not the ACLU.”
– Ok, perhaps a bit over the top.
But, many will argue the brightest, most impressive Lititz Christmas display occurred 20 years ago when thousands of spirits united in support of the Nativity scene crèche in the square.
“It’s an extraordinary story for the ages” said Ellen Dooley, who ignited the pre-social media “flash mob” of about 3,000 marchers who carried signs during a 36-hour Christmas week vigil.
Like most great stories, this one has blockbuster elements: heroes; rogues; compassionate and intellectual characters; conflicted ones from KKK as well; and of course: A happy ending.
Amazingly – perhaps to many anyway – both the Nativity supporters and ACLU say it all “worked out” 20 years ago.
But how can both sides in a deeply divided dispute come away happy?
After all, the American Civil Liberties Union served as a coalescing villain that galvanized the borough in what Dooley described as a “David and Goliath battle.”
A Christmas Story
The nearly one-year saga began on Dec. 17, 1993, when an ACLU missive on the downtown Nativity scene arrived at the Lititz Borough Office.
“The ACLU said that this is impermissible under the U.S. Constitution, citing two court cases,” said Sue Barry, Lititz Borough manager.
An anonymous resident complained to the ACLU that the nativity scene – displayed on borough property – gave the appearance that Lititz was “sponsoring, endorsing and advancing the Christian religion.”
Lititz resident Alida Elizabeth Burkholder this week reflected on the mood of the town and the protests the ACLU evoked in 1993.
“I remember thinking why someone would not embrace our town’s way of thinking about the holidays and that whoever had called the ACLU could just leave Lititz, they were not welcome,” Burkholder said.
In the end neither side backed down and the Nativity scene remains today. But that’s only because of plot complications revealed later in the story.
Witold J. Walczak, Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the organization has no regrets about the matter 20 years later.
“This issue is more misunderstood by folks than almost more than any other issue we deal with,” Walczak said Tuesday.
“There’s a reason why we have more religious liberty in this country than any other country around the world or even throughout history,” he said.
The ACLU requested voluntary compliance in removing the nativity scene by the end of the business day on Dec. 24, 1993 and warned Lititz that failure to do so would result in litigation.
Dooley said she had a “visceral reaction” when she heard about the ACLU’s challenge.
She countered with a call to the American Center for Justice who guided her in organizing a peaceful protest.
In only a few hours, almost 250 volunteers sign up to walk after Christian radio stations WDAL and WJPL broadcast her plans to organize.
Ultimately thousands showed up to walk in 1-hour shifts around the square from Dec. 23 to Dec. 24.
“People continued walking after their one-hour shift was up,” Dooley said. “I was stunned by the outpouring of support and encouragement. It took longer and longer to get around the square.”
Because of the freezing temperatures, some dubbed the candle-carrying group the “Frozen Chosen” after residents and restaurants arrived with warm food and hot chocolate.
Word quickly spread. Dooley said 7,000 people signed a petition in support of the Nativity scene to present borough council.
“People came from outside the county and even outside the state when it became national news,” Dooley said. “It was such as dynamic, powerful time for our community.”
Barry said Lititz Borough Hall was inundated with 507 documented phone calls and 218 support letters for the crèche.
The issue drew demonstrators dressed as wise men accompanied by camels and donkeys. Santa knelt and prayed before the crèche.
But it also attracted 12 Klansmen from the Reading area KKK branch. One referred to the manger scene as a menorah on a television report.
“I think that was an example of God’s sense of humor,” Dooley said.
Roy B. Clair Jr., the Lititz Mayor at the time, said the case with ACLU was closed for the season.
The borough in January 1994 circumvented the ACLU by granting manger ownership to a group Dooley formed called LAMPS Lititz Area Manger Preservation Society.
Among the group was Jo Yunkin, a high school student who spent the summer months of 1994 refurbishing the figurines. Yunkin was killed tragically in a car crash 10 years later.
Later in 1994, LAMPS relinquished control of the Nativity scene when the borough learned the Moravian Church actually owned the square and could display the Christian symbols freely.
That should have been the end of the story. But LAMPS last official act was to hold a rededication of the crèche during the 1994 Christmas season.
Entertainment acts performing on a stage erected by the square on Nov. 30 attracted close to 3,000 people once again.
Among the performers during the 90-minute community celebration was Wane Watson a hugely popular Christian singer song-writer at the time.
The outpouring of support for the crèche in 1993 compelled Watson to accept LAMPS request to come to Lititz.
Dooley said Watson – who was discouraged and disheartened that “so many had lost the true meaning of Christmas” – was blown away by Lititz’s charm and spirit.
The crowd spent a half hour singing such Christmas carols as “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” before Watson performed.
“He told us afterwards, Lititz has renewed my hope in people and in Christmas,” Dooley said.
Last word from ACLU
Walczak said Tuesday that Lititz landed in the right “accidentally” by ensuring the Nativity scene is placed on private property.
“It’s the same solution that Pittsburgh finally arrived on after years of litigation that went to the Supreme Court,” he said.
Walczak went on to say things in Lititz “worked out perfectly.”
“That’s freedom of Religion. If you’re a private party, an individual or corporation, you’ve got a right to put up whatever display you want. You can make it as religious as holiday as you want.”