Na­tiv­ity scene, athe­ist ban­ner spark de­bate

Bethel of­fi­cials strug­gle to cre­ate bal­anced rules

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Ju­lia Perkins

BETHEL — A Na­tiv­ity set and an athe­ist ban­ner have thrown the town into a com­pli­cated de­bate over re­li­gious dis­plays on pub­lic prop­erty.

A res­i­dent has pro­posed in­stalling a ban­ner wish­ing the com­mu­nity a happy holi­days and signed “your athe­ist neigh­bors.” The sign would go on P.T. Bar­num Square, where a manger has sat for decades.

But this year an athe­ist group crit­i­cized the se­lect­men for ap­prov­ing the Na­tiv­ity set.

Some res­i­dents have de­rided the “athe­ist” sign, but it ap­pears the town can­not legally re­ject it.

“The hard part is: if you’re go­ing to al­low a re­li­gious dis­play, you can­not deny a non-re­li­gious dis­play,” First Se­lect­man Matt Knicker­bocker said. “Nor can you edit it and say, ‘I don’t like the word athe­ist.’ ”

The se­lect­men will vote at 7 p.m. Tues­day on whether to al­low the sign to be erected in P.T. Bar­num Square.

The law is com­plex when it comes to de­ter­min­ing whether re­li­gious dis­plays are per­mit­ted in pub­lic spa­ces.

Towns are not al­lowed to spon­sor or set up re­li­gious dis­plays. Nor are re­li­gious dis­plays per­mit­ted inside or at the en­trance of gov­ern­ment build­ings. But th­ese dis­plays are al­lowed in pub­lic places as long as the town does not pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar re­li­gion.

The Board of Se­lect­men this week passed a tem­po­rary pol­icy in­tended to be in­clu­sive, while still pre­vent­ing dis­plays from de­fam­ing other re­li­gions, peo­ple or groups.

Knicker­bocker said that

was his best shot at cre­at­ing fair guidelines, but he ad­mit­ted it is dif­fi­cult to de­cide what dis­play de­means some­one, adding the pol­icy might not hold up in court.

“It’s go­ing to be sub­jec­tive,” he said. “Quite frankly, an at­tor­ney might have a prob­lem with that. We’re at­tempt­ing to en­force com­mu­nity stan­dards and I’m go­ing to ad­mit we might not have the right to do so.”

Nick Fish, pres­i­dent of Amer­i­can Athe­ists, agreed that part of the pol­icy is con­sti­tu­tion­ally ques­tion­able.

“The gov­ern­ment get­ting into the busi­ness of de­cid­ing what is of­fense or an at­tack on an­other’s re­li­gion is a dan­ger­ous place to be in,” he said.

“There are peo­ple who are go­ing to be of­fended by any­thing we put up, sim­ply be­cause it has the word athe­ist on there,” Fish added. “There are peo­ple who view the word ‘athe­ist’ as an at­tack.”

But he said Bethel’s lat­est pol­icy is bet­ter than the nonex­is­tent one the town had be­fore.

In a let­ter to the Board of Se­lect­men, the Amer­i­can Athe­ists crit­i­cized the town for its lack of a writ­ten pol­icy, ar­gu­ing it made it harder for more in­clu­sive dis­plays to be ap­proved.

“This isn’t about cre­at­ing the im­pres­sion that there’s a war on Christ­mas here,” Fish said. “It’s about en­sur­ing that lo­cal towns and lo­cal gov­ern­ment is fol­low­ing the law. If they’re not, we want to cor­rect that.”

The group has of­fered to help Bethel im­prove its guidelines.

“We’re happy to help them find that mid­dle ground be­tween en­sur­ing the dis­plays are pos­i­tive and re­spect­ful, but that peo­ple have free speech rights,” Fish said.

Th­ese guidelines are meant to get Bethel through this hol­i­day season. In the new year, a com­mit­tee will be cre­ated to de­velop a per­ma­nent pol­icy.

A dozen peo­ple have signed up to be on the com­mit­tee.

The Rev. John Par­ille, the pas­tor at Bethel United Methodist Church, said he sym­pa­thized with how com­pli­cated it is to cre­ate fair guidelines.

He said he knows some Chris­tians find the “athe­ist” ban­ner to be of­fen­sive.

But Par­ille said he thought about how Je­sus would han­dle the sit­u­a­tion. And Je­sus would wel­come ev­ery­one, even if he dis­agreed, Par­ille said.

“(To be) the great­est wit­ness (of Je­sus) would be for us to show com­pas­sion and mercy and love and ac­cep­tance to any or­ga­ni­za­tion, as long as it not of­fen­sive,” he said.

Par­ille said he was dis­ap­pointed with some of the per­sonal at­tacks di­rected to­ward res­i­dents on so­cial me­dia. He called on res­i­dents to be “peace­mak­ers,” as Je­sus was, and work to­gether to come up with a so­lu­tion.

“There is an op­por­tu­nity, I think for ev­ery­one, for the town, for the Chris­tians, for non-be­liev­ers, to come to­gether,” he said.

That’s al­ready start­ing to hap­pen.

This week, James Nad­deo, the res­i­dent who wants to put up the “athe­ist” ban­ner, and Tim Martin, one of the res­i­dents in­volved in rais­ing money for and set­ting up the Na­tiv­ity set, dis­cussed the is­sue.

Nad­deo said the con­ver­sa­tion was pro­duc­tive.

“It was neigh­borly and cor­dial and re­spect­ful,” he said.

Af­ter­ward, Nad­deo de­cided to re­vise his sign. He said it will likely still in­clude the word “athe­ist,” but will not have the Amer­i­can Athe­ists’ logo on it.

The orig­i­nal ban­ner said “This season, no mat­ter what you cel­e­brate or why, Happy Holi­days! — your athe­ist neigh­bors.”

Nad­deo said he plans to tweak this word­ing.

“It’s go­ing to be the same pos­i­tive mes­sage, wish­ing the Bethel com­mu­nity happy holi­days, no mat­ter what you cele- brate,” he said.

Martin said he is pleased Nad­deo is up­dat­ing the de­sign. But his main fo­cus is on the manger he and other res­i­dents from lo­cal churches helped raise money for and set up.

“I’m happy the na­tiv­ity set is there,” Martin said. “I want it to be there for many years. That’s what's im­por­tant to me.”

At a pub­lic hear­ing on Mon­day, many res­i­dents said they would sup­port a meno­rah in the square, but a meno­rah has not been pro­posed.

Penny Kessler, the can­tor at the United Jewish Cen­ter in Dan­bury and a long­time Bethel res­i­dent, said she has not con­sid­ered putting up a meno­rah down­town. She has one at her home and there is one at the United Jewish Cen­ter.

Kessler said Bethel has al­ways been in­clu­sive.

“Peo­ple in this town re­ally are wel­com­ing to peo­ple that run the whole range of re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tions and faith af­fil­i­a­tion, from no af­fil­i­a­tion at all, to are­li­gious, to ex­tremely ob­ser­vant,” she said. “We all have a place here in Bethel.”

Kessler praised town of­fi­cials for their ef­forts to de­velop eq­ui­table guidelines.

“They are re­ally work­ing hard to make a pol­icy that is fair for every­body,” she said.

Par­ille sug­gested a com­mit­tee also be in charge of de­cid­ing or rec­om­mend­ing what dis­plays are per­mit­ted. He said the group could be made up of cross sec­tions of the com­mu­nity, such as Chris­tians, Jews, athe­ists and other or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“If you have con­tenders who are vy­ing for space, they shouldn’t be com­pet­ing for space,” Par­ille said. “They should say what’s fair and eq­ui­table.”

Knicker­bocker said the goal is to en­cour­age res­i­dents to spread pos­i­tive hol­i­day mes­sages with their dis­plays.

“We’re try­ing to sup­port all mem­bers of the com­mu­nity and not bow to peo­ple whose aim is to poke peo­ple’s eye,” he said.

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