Christmas on the courthouse lawn


I have to admit, I love living in a community where the county courthouse is so politically incorrect that its front lawn features both a Nativity scene and a Christmas tree.

I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion of the overboard court rulings that have led our society to believe there’s something wrong with the Ten Commandments being posted in front of a school or that it’s a violation of someone’s rights for a Nativity scene to be displayed on government property.

I’m afraid I’m in agreement with those who believe that our society began going significantly downhill when we began to ban God, prayer and other observances of faith from public education.

So, it’s good to live in Highland County. It’s important, for legal clarity, to point out that neither the Nativity scene nor the Christmas tree on our courthouse lawn is sponsored by the county or any other form of government.

As it has been for the past decade, the manger scene is provided by the Yuellig family, and the Christmas tree, hopefully a new tradition, is sponsored by members of the student council of Hillsboro High School, on their own time and having raised their own money. So no one need go into conniption fits over government-sponsored religion, because that’s not happening.

I’m pretty sure that if I drove around the block and noticed a symbol of a religion other than Christianity erected on a piece of government land, I would still sleep just fine. I wouldn’t panic. I wouldn’t call the police. I wouldn’t file a lawsuit. I wouldn’t feel offended, and I wouldn’t feel that my government was trying to force some other religion down my throat. But that is how some elements in our society tell me I should feel, if such a thing happened.

Sometime last week, I looked across the street from our office and noticed the Nativity scene going up in front of the courthouse, as usual. On Friday night, I received a text from someone asking if I knew why it had been taken down. The next day, I spoke to Tom Horst, the county commissioner, who said that the manger scene had to be moved to make room for the Christmas tree.

I love that, because it’s somewhat hilarious. I can just see our community being sued by the ACLU, and our defense in court is, “Your honor, we did remove the Nativity scene from the courthouse lawn. We had to make room for the Christmas tree!”

Truth is, if someone did sue, court precedents on the subject would probably conclude that both the Nativity scene and the Christmas tree pass legal muster, without going into all the details about why that’s the case. But every so often, people raise questions anyway.

From the very beginning, the Nativity has been plagued by not having enough room – first at the inn in Bethlehem, now on the courthouse lawn in Hillsboro.

In fact, Tom said the manger scene just had to be moved a little more toward the street where it had been placed previously. But on Saturday, when I showed up to cover the placement of the tree, Gordon L. Yuellig was there and said he had already move the Nativity scene to a different location north of town.

As I know many others did, Tom and I both urged him to bring it back. He said he would discuss it with his family, because it does take some work to disassemble and reassemble it, and they had already done it twice this year.

By the way, Tom Horst has always been one of my favorite people, and I’ll miss him in office when his term ends this year. He was there Saturday not only helping put up the Christmas tree, but, as I said, urging the return of the Nativity scene. But Tom is also the self-appointed guardian of the courthouse lawn. I can imagine him when he’s 90, sitting on one of the benches that will be in place when the uptown plaza finally gets built, and yelling at people to stay off the courthouse grass.

(A “roast and toast” for Tom is scheduled from 2-4 p.m. Dec. 30 at Highland County Common Pleas Court. Be there!)

Happily, by Sunday afternoon, I received a message on my phone from Mr. Yuellig’s daughter-in-law, Lindsey Yuellig, with pictures taken by her father, Chris Theofilos, showing the Nativity scene back in front of the courthouse – with the new Christmas tree in the background.

In a letter he wrote describing his late father’s reasons for first erecting the Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn and the family’s reasons for carrying it on, Mr. Yuellig made a significant point.

He wrote, “In this town, we live in a Christian culture whether we are believers or not. The icons of this season are both religious and secular and most of us embrace them all… The image of the manger scene can be as religious or non-religious as we choose. After all, how can the birth of a child be anything but good?”

Mr. Yuellig pointed out that he doesn’t necessarily share all his father’s beliefs or his politics, but the family carries on the Nativity tradition as “a memorial to the man.” Well said, and well done.

I don’t believe in state-sponsored religion. That’s a bad idea. And I do understand maintaining the separation of church and state. But the original reason for that separation was more to protect the church from the state, not the other way around.

And I don’t believe in being ridiculous about it. In Highland County, a Christmas tree and Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn in the center of Hillsboro is fitting and natural.

Thank you to the late Gordon W. Yuellig, whose belief in his First Amendment right of expression led him to place the manger scene in the first place a decade ago, and thanks to his family for carrying on the tradition in his honor. Thanks also to the Hillsboro Student Council members who decided that a Christmas tree would look just great on the lawn in the middle of Hillsboro. They’re right.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

By Gary Abernathy

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