After charges that it illegally promotes Christianity with a nativity scene at Fire Station 12 in West Ashley, the city of Charleston removed the creche from display.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates separation of church and state, sent a letter dated Dec. 17 to Mayor Joe Riley and Fire Chief Thomas Carr notifying them of the city's Constitutional breach and requesting removal of the creche from the fire station. The letter expressed dismay that the problem has occurred for at least six years. A local resident had complained to the organization about the creche, the letter states.

"As you are aware, this display has been erected each year in December since at least 2004," wrote Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Rebecca S. Kratz. "Last year's display included an illuminated Latin cross (the preeminent symbol of Christianity) atop the firehouse roof. We were pleased to learn that as of the date of this letter, the Fire Department appears to be honoring the separation of church and state by at least not displaying a Latin cross this year."

A large, white, illuminated cross was on display Sunday evening at the station, though no creche was to be seen. The nativity scene had been removed Thursday in response to the complaint, according to fire department personnel. The cross was leaning against a stone memorial to the nine firefighters who died in the 2007 Sofa Super Store blaze. It was not part of a Christmas display, firefighters at the station said.

The complaint was referred last week to the city's legal department which, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings, advised that the display be removed, according to the Fire Department's public information officer Mark R. Ruppel.

"The Supreme Court has said that the United States' Constitution prohibits governments from taking any action that appears to promote one religion over another," city officials said in a statement. "The creche is the universal symbol of Christianity, and therefore, based on the law, it was removed from the fire station. The City and the Fire Department fully support everyone's right to practice his or her religion in our city."

Fire departments and holidays often are intertwined. Civic parades almost always include fire trucks and department representatives, and stations typically feature holiday decorations.

St. Andrew's Fire Station on Ashley River Road includes a mechanical, life-sized Santa Claus and other Christmas decorations. Firemen at the station and main offices on Wentworth and Meeting streets were high on ladders stringing lights last week. Station 6 on Cannon Street was dressed in seasonal garb, its doors and windows framed by white lights. Station 5/10 on Nicholson Drive at Savannah Highway featured a festive image of a fire truck painted on a wood board and mounted on an exterior wall, with the phrase "Merry Christmas" framed in lights.

First Amendment controversies are not new to South Carolina. Most recently, a federal district court judge ruled in November that a specialty vehicle license plate with the statement "I Believe," and including the image of a cross overlaid on a stained-glass window, was unconstitutional because it was based on a discriminatory law promoted by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and passed by the Legislature in 2008.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argued in its letter to the city that displaying religious symbols on city property "unmistakably sends the message that the City of Charleston endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display" and therefore excludes residents who do not subscribe to those views.

"There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed," Kratz wrote. "Once the city enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or aparker@postandcourier.com.