PITMAN, N.J. (RNS) Located just 17 miles southeast of Philadelphia, Pitman, N.J., has the rural feel of fictional Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Life, however, became a lot less wonderful for Pitman’s mayor, Mike Batten, a week ago when he received an email from Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.
Gaylor was writing, she said, on behalf of a “concerned area resident and taxpayer” who was offended by a religious banner long displayed in downtown Pitman. The sign, strung across Broadway, the town’s main thoroughfare, reads, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” And now the town is embroiled in a legal and religious dispute that has made residents resentful.
“I thought it was going to be a quiet year,” said Batten, who added the banner has been put up every year, stretched between a bank building and a utility pole, and is stretched over a county road, so the town doesn’t even have jurisdiction over it.
“We’re middle America here,” he said. “It was never really a big deal for us. It’s a Christian town. It’s sad. I see many times in the country a minority gets to rule the majority, and that’s not fair.”
Andrew Seidel, a constitutional consultant for the Freedom From Religion Foundation , disagrees. He said that the group sent the letter to Pitman after receiving the complaint from a resident who asked to remain anonymous and that when he saw the photos, he contacted the borough and its zoning board.
“In our mind, this was either a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, or a sign that needed a permit—and that without a permit, they were showing favoritism to an organization,” he said.
Seidel is awaiting an answer to a public-records request for copies of a permit granted by the zoning board. If there was a permit, the borough must accommodate the request of anyone who wants a different message. The foundation included in its letter the wording of a message it would display: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds. Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
Although he’s leaving office Jan. 7, Batten, who is also one of the town’s barbers, said he wasn’t going to budge just because of a letter.
“It’s something we feel very strongly about,” he said, noting that Pitman’s roots go back more than 140 years, when it was founded as a Methodist camp meeting ground. In fact, according to the town’s history, the 12 avenues that lead out from the center of town represent the 12 apostles.
“We’re a small community,” Batten said, “and we look forward to celebrating the holidays.”
The state League of Municipalities offers this guidance: “Municipal holiday displays that are limited to more secular images, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees, are likely to survive constitutional scrutiny. However, it is still unclear under what circumstances more religious symbols, like creches, menorahs, or in related cases, copies of the Ten Commandments, may be displayed by a municipality or on municipal property.”
Matthew Weng, a staff attorney for the league, said the situation in Pitman was unique.
“They evidentially lack authority to bring down the sign itself,” Weng said. “It’s on a utility pole and a private building. Their position is that there is not a whole lot they can do about it.”
Weng said he gets a lot of questions every year from towns that want to be proactive regarding Christmas and other holiday displays.
“It’s rare any sort of controversy ensues,” he said.
Pitman Councilman Russell Johnson feels it is all much ado about nothing.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said the councilman. “This is all because one person got tired of looking at the sign every day, who decided to hide nameless behind this Wisconsin group. Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”
Johnson said the banner in question is one of several that go up in the same spot every year, for different groups. The Knights of Columbus has been putting up the same Christmas message for 45 years.
“It’s a Pitman tradition,” he said.
Now Pitman is a national story.
“It’s polarized the whole town,” said Brian J. Duffield, the borough’s solicitor. “The borough itself did not put up the banner. We have nothing to do with it. … It’s not like we can go out and tear it down.”
Seventy-eight-year-old Martha Abdill, who said she is Methodist, feels it’s a serious matter and can’t imagine anyone from Pitman would have complained. Whoever it was, she said, is just downright “rude.”
Eugene Ritter, who is from nearby Paulsboro, feels even more strongly. He decided two days ago to take matters into his own hands. Standing in the rain on Broadway, he read aloud from the Bible, while holding a sign that read, “2 Corinthians, 3:17: The Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Ritter, 22, said he got the quote from a Bible app he recently downloaded on his Android.
“I’m a soldier for God,” he said. “I’m here because I prayed to God and God spoke to me and said I should come out and do this. This where I need to be.”
Although Ritter said he thinks the complaint and the attempts to take the sign down are “evil,” he said he would have no objection to signs from other religions joining the “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner.
“If they want to put up one of their own, that’s fine,” he said. “This is our holiday. This is Christ’s birthday. Don’t take our holiday away from us.”
(Amy Ellis Nutt and Ted Sherman write for the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)