Christmas-Jesus: A religious message on a banner downtown has stirred controversy this holiday season, with more than 140 comments and replies blowing up a post on outgoing Mayor Kitty Piercy’s official Facebook page.
The sign in question reads, “CHRISTMAS Attend a Church of Your Choice” and “JESUS Celebrate His Birth.” Since the banner is stretched across the public street of 8th Avenue, some citizens argue that it’s in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
Sally Nunn, a Eugene resident for 53 years, says “it is seen as a message to people that this is being endorsed by the city, whether that perception is correct or not.”
“I think they have an obligation to be neutral on politics and religion,” Nunn adds.
Sam Mitchell, a local musician, says the sign is alienating and shows that only certain people are welcome in our town. “I don’t think the city should be allowing or even making money from religious organizations to display their messages on the streets,” he says. “I especially don’t think it’s appropriate since those religious organizations aren’t paying taxes in the first place.”
Brian Richardson, the public affairs manager of city of Eugene public works, says, “We generally don’t look at the messages of those events because of constitutional provisions.” Instead, he says that the banner program only looks to see when the reservation is, if the applicant completed the forms and if there was a full payment of fees.
“We don’t want to review these messages because we don’t want to infringe on freedom of speech,” Richardson adds.
The controversial sign itself is the remnant of the long legacy of local resident Al Jagger, who ran a program called Messengers Of Truth, which aimed to spread the gospel with lawn signs at Christmas time. He died in October at the age of 98, but according to his obituary, “more than 70,000 signs have been sold in the 12 years since Jagger began campaigning for Christ.”
While Jagger’s previous billboards and lawn signs, including an Easter banner downtown last year, didn’t stir much controversy in those 12 years, many in the community do not accept the banner across 8th Avenue.
“There absolutely should not be religious banners in public spaces,” Mitchell says. “It’s inappropriate, it’s divisive and it’s a non-inclusive message to other members of our community.”