Manger concerns

By on December 11, 2013

Twenty years ago Ephrata’s Ellen Dooley launched a 3,000-person march against the ACLU’s Nativity scene challenge

Ephrata resident Ellen Dooley wasn’t “particularly religious” 20 years ago when she helped galvanize 3,000 people in support of a Nativity scene in Lititz square.

Now an ordained pastor, Dooley looked back to December 1993 and an astonishing pre-social media flash-mob that marched in protest of the American Civil Liberties Union challenge to the borough’s Nativity scene

“It’s an extraordinary story for the ages” said Ellen Dooley, “I was just a homemaker at the time. It’s just amazing to me how things unfolded.”

A Christmas story

Like many great stories, this one has blockbuster elements: heroes and rogues, unexpected twists, complicated and noteworthy characters, a cultural component of the Nativity scene (or crèche), and of course: a happy ending.

The nearly one-year saga began when Dooley heard a TV news report that an ACLU letter had arrived at the borough office on Dec. 17, 1993.

An anonymous resident had complained to the ACLU that the crèche – displayed on borough property – gave the appearance that Lititz was “sponsoring, endorsing and advancing the Christian religion.”

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.

Visceral reaction

Dooley said she had a “visceral reaction” when she heard about the ACLU’s challenge. It turned out to be her calling to the seminary.

“The ACLU in some respects has bullied people,” Dooley said. “ With God’s help, we stood up to the bully.”

To be sure her actions were legal, Dooley countered the ACLU with a call to the American Center for Justice which guided her in organizing a peaceful protest.

Outpouring of support

In only a few hours, almost 250 volunteers sign up for the candle light march after Christian radio stations WDAL and WJPL broadcast Dooley’s plans.

“My phone rang from 9 a.m. to 11 at night when I had to unplug it,” Dooley said.

Ultimately thousands showed up to walk in one-hour shifts around the square during a 36-hour period on Dec. 23-24.

“I was stunned by the outpouring of support and encouragement,” Dooley said.

Frozen Chosen

But then an interesting thing happened, she said.

“People continued walking after their one-hour shift was up,” Dooley said. It took longer and longer to get around the square.”

Because of the overnight chill, some dubbed the candle-carrying group the “Frozen Chosen.” Residents and local restaurants arrived to share warm food and hot chocolate.

Word quickly spread. Soon Dooley had 7,000 signatures on a petition in support of the Nativity scene to be present at borough council’s January meeting in 1994.

“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.”

Arrivals

Lititz Borough Manager Sue Barry said the borough received 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 arrived then knelt to pray before the crèche.

A dozen Klansmen from the Reading area KKK branch also arrived. 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.

Stand off

Ultimately, the ACLU appeared to have a legal foothold, citing two court cases that stated it is impermissible under the U.S. Constitution to place a crèche on public property.

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 actually backed down and the Nativity scene remains today.

In a strange twist it turned out that the square in Lititz was not actually on public land.

ACLU Response

Witold J. Walczak, Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday that the organization has no regrets about the matter.

“This issue is more misunderstood by folks than almost 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.

But Dooley believes the ACLU failed in its goal to “rewrite history” and the protest march was “God ordained.”

New Year

The borough in January 1994 planned to circumvent the ACLU by granting ownership of the crèche 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.

LAMPS relinquished control of the Nativity scene toward the end of 1994 when the borough learned the Moravian Church actually owned the square and could display the Christian symbols freely.

Final Act

But Dooley, president of LAMPS, helped organize the last official act for the group: a rededication of the crèche during the 1994 Christmas season.

Entertainment acts performing on a stage on the square attracted close to 3,000 people once again on Nov. 30.

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 in 1994.

Dooley said Watson – who was discouraged and disheartened that “so many had lost the true meaning of Christmas” – was blown away by the local 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

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