The town of Oakville is in the middle of a “church and state” debate over a Christmas sign at the local volunteer fire station.
A message reading “Unto us, a savior is born, Merry Christmas,” was recently pulled from the reader board at Grays Harbor Fire District 1 after a citizen complained about a government entity spreading a religious message and called Fire District Commissioner David Edwards.
After receiving a call from Edwards, Fire Chief Kevin Witt took down the sign and some Christmas lights.
But that action spurred controversy in the town, and at the Fire Commission’s regular meeting last Monday night commissioners voted 2-1 to put the sign back up. Edwards voted against it, according to Witt.
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Edwards said that, based on advice from the commissioners’ legal counsel, he doesn’t think keeping the message is the right thing to do.
“I took a sworn oath of office after being elected to uphold the laws of the state of Washington and the Constitution of the United States of America,” he said. “I felt that this was not legally proper on the advice of the letter from our legal counsel.”
Brian Snure, an attorney based in Des Moines, sent an email message to Edwards with his opinion on the sign.
“As the District reader board is public property, and the quoted message relates to a specific religious statement, I believe it was appropriate to remove the message as the use of the reader board for that particular message could be construed as a violation of Article I, Section II (of the Washington state Constitution),” Snure’s email reads.
Article I, section II reads “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.”
The debate has reached the national level, said Witt, with comments appearing on the district’s Facebook page from all around the country. On Tuesday, the all-volunteer station was inundated with requests from the media.
Monday night’s commission meeting drew an unusually large number of citizens to weigh in on the issue, said Witt, with residents moving outside afterward to have the sign put back up while community members sang Christmas carols.
Witt claims the sign on which the message was placed is not labeled as part of the fire district. Rather, it is part of the firefighters association, he said, and therefore not an entity that receives public funding. He added that all the firefighters at the station supported the message.
Gloria Edwards, Commissioner Edwards’ wife, disagreed with Witt’s reasoning, saying the sign is still problematic due to its placement on fire district property.
“(The sign) doesn’t belong, in my opinion, at the firehouse,” said Gloria Edwards. “ ‘Merry Christmas’ would be great.”