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Gay nativity scene vandalized at Claremont church

December 29, 2011 | 12:37 pm

An unusual nativity display at a Claremont church that portrayed gay couples was vandalized over the weekend in an incident authorities are investigating as a hate crime.

Claremont United Methodist Church has a Christmas tradition of unusual nativity displays, intended to carry a social or political message.

Despite some of the controversial topics, the scenes had never been vandalized or defaced, according to church officials and John Zachary, the artist who created the scenes.

But this year, suspects vandalized a nativity scene that included wooden light boxes with three couples holding hands -- a man and a woman, two women and two men -- under a star of Bethlehem and a sign that said "Christ is Born."

Church officials came in before the Christmas morning service to find that someone had pushed over the two gay couples and left the heterosexual couple standing.

The vandalism occurred sometime between 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 9 a.m. on Christmas Day, police said. No suspects have been identified.

The church has never shied away from controversial topics, including a scene of war in the Middle East, a mother and baby in prison and a depiction of the U.S./Mexico border fence.

One year, the nativity depicted a homeless family. The scene prompted an impromptu outpouring of giving, with congregation members leaving donations of food, clothing and money.

"Christ's birth in a stable had a lot to do with poverty and being marginalized," said Pastor Sharon Rhodes-Wickett. "What this church has tried to do through these scenes is say, 'What would that look like today?'"

In 1993, the church made a decision to be a "reconciling congregation" which welcomes gay, lesbian and trasngender members. This year's nativity display was intended to convey that message, Rhodes-Wickett said.

Ed Kania, 60, an openly gay member of the church, called the act of vandalism disappointing, especially because Claremont is a generally seen as a progressive college town.

"It's a reminder that although there are pockets of acceptance, not everybody is accepting," he said. "We're all kind of disappointed, but we're using it as a rallying point."

Church members and supporters from other religious organizations were planning a vigil at the site at 7:30 p.m.

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-- Abby Sewell

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