A self-proclaimed civil rights group is giving Michigan's Newaygo Public School District an ultimatum – remove the display of Three Wise Men and a star from the top of an elementary school building or face legal action.
The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA) says it put the county on notice after getting a complaint from a resident.
"We've asked the school to remove what is in essence a nativity scene, from the top of the school, and from school property," Mitch Kale of MACRA said, noting that he believes it to be a clear violation of the US Constitution.
"If this were on private property it wouldn't be an issue," he added.
But in a now-deleted Facebook post, Newaygo Public Schools Superintendent Peggy Mathis argued that the display is not meant to be religious.
"Newaygo Public Schools has a legitimate secular purpose for the display," she wrote. "We are both upholding the community's tradition of celebrating a public holiday and attempting to point towards the importance of wisdom, knowledge, and open-mindedness."
Most citizens of the small Michigan town also support keeping the display, which has been part of Newaygo's Christmas tradition since the 1940s.
"It's just a symbol of our community," Newaygo resident Amy Postma told Eastern Michigan's CBS affiliate "9&10 News." "It's always been there and we love it."
"You can't just take away something that we've always done," she continued. "It's not harming anyone; it's not hurting anyone, so live and let live."
Lowell Godfrey had sentimental reasons for wanting the one-dimensional wooden figures to remain in place.
"My dad helped build those in shop class in the old school back in the 1940s," he explained in a Facebook post. "So....IMO, the school should have a class on world religions and as a project for the class have students create more artwork (like those 3 Wise Men), representative of other religious groups, and add them to the display."
Evangelist Franklin Graham suggests the issue is more than a matter of nostalgia but instead is about protecting the rights of Newaygo residents to freely exercise their religion.
"I believe the display of the Three Wise Men over this town should stay up and continue to send a message for years to come," he wrote in a Facebook post. "Pray for the people of Newaygo as they battle for their religious freedom."
Meanwhile, a backup plan is in the works should the Newaygo school district be forced to remove the display.
WZZM-TV reports that supporters are trying to get permission to relocate the Christmas scene to a private property located on the north end of Newaygo in hopes of withstanding any future legal challenges.