Church hosts historic Nativity after ACLU threatens litigation

Sarah Davis

Arkansas Baptist News

WARREN – The Christmas decorations have been put up at the courthouse in Warren, but one thing is noticeably missing this year – a 50-year-old Nativity scene.

Unfortunately, it appears the culture wars have caught up with the good people of the southeast Arkansas town of about 6,000.

Beginning in 2017, Bradley County Judge Klay McKinney has received letters from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatening lawsuits regarding the Nativity scene.

“For the past few years, there have been written complaints from the ACLU requesting the nativity to be removed from state property and claiming that the complaint had been made from a citizen of Bradley County,” said Matt Overall, senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Warren.

“He (McKinney) has ignored them until now,” said Russell Rhoden, pastor of First Baptist Church, Warren, adding, “He is worried, based on legal rulings, that if a lawsuit is filed, it will cost the county a lot of money in legal fees.”

Overall said a similar situation occurred in another Arkansas county regarding a Nativity scene displayed on public property and the ACLU won – with the county ending up having to pay nearly $70,000 in legal fees.

“Our county judge was faced with the impossible decision,” said Overall. “One that he agonized over, prayed over and ultimately had to make for the best interest of our county, which was, unfortunately, to not allow the display this year.

“Klay (McKinney) is a great man who loves Jesus and is highly involved in our church,” said Overall. “His job as county judge was to make the best decision for Bradley County – a county who could not afford to suffer that kind of lawsuit.”

For the 2019 Christmas season, the Nativity scene has found a new home on the lawn of First Baptist, which is two blocks away from the courthouse.

According to Rhoden, most people support McKinney’s decision but some people see this act as McKinney giving in to outside pressure.

“Judge McKinney is simply making the best decision based upon legal advice for the financial impact for the county,” said Rhoden.

“The county, by moving the Nativity scene, has not been defeated on this issue,” Rhoden wrote on his Facebook page Dec. 3. “On the contrary, Christ is being glorified even more by the simple fact that more people are now displaying the Nativity scene than ever before in Bradley County, and ultimately this issue has people talking about the Nativity.”

Additionally, many residents of Bradley County have purchased or created a Nativity scene to place in their yards. Even businesses are proudly displaying the scene.

“That is exactly what the ACLU did not want to happen,” said Overall. “Bradley County is full of wonderful people who do have a heart for the gospel and a love for others. This controversy has brought more attention to what the Nativity actually represents than placing it on the courthouse lawn ever would have.

“The message of Christmas – and of the Nativity – has been shared more in the wake of this controversy that it ever had been in the years before,” said Overall.

Jeff Hessinger, director of missions at Bartholomew Baptist Association, said the Nativity scene controversy is a “visible representation of the shift (of) our community.”

“Though we have many who love the Lord and are very upset, their values are only a part of who we are as a community,” he said. “Like the rest of North America, our community is leaning further away from God and the church more than it has in the past.”

According to Hessinger, the removal of the Nativity has challenged the biblical values and the churches in Bradley County.

“We here in Warren need Christians to take the gospel to the streets,” said Hessinger. “The values found in scripture and the life-changing power of the gospel must be talked about, shared and lived out in the streets, schools and community.

“When we only express our Christian faith in the church house, then we lose the Nativity at the courthouse,” added Hessinger.

Contact Sarah Davis at sarah@arkansasbaptist.org.

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