Massachusetts Town Braces for Christmas Controversy

Since the 1950s and maybe before the town of Walpole, Massachusetts has allowed a privately owned nativity scene to be displayed each Christmas season. It appears that tradition will continue — just so long as there is a permit applied for it and that a “winter solstice” banner has equal opportunity for display.

The new policy is the result of a complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Wisconsin-based group that wrote to Walpole officials in January questioning whether the town’s holiday tradition is an illegal endorsement of Christianity.

Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the foundation, said earlier this week that she is satisfied with the new Walpole policy that allows any group to apply for permission to put up holiday displays on town property. She added that her group may ask to install a “winter solstice” banner — as a counterpoint to the privately owned nativity scene, which has gone up on the town common since at least the 1950s.

She said the banner — similar to one on Boston Common last year — would read: “At this Season of the Winter Solstice, let 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.”

Selectmen unanimously passed the new policy in June for holiday displays on town-owned property, noting that the board “recognizes and celebrates the diversity” of the Walpole community.

The stated purpose of the new policy is “to ensure that each town-owned facility and property has a welcoming atmosphere and does not result in the town acting to advance or inhibit any particular religion, culture, or ethnicity.”

The policy explicitly says that displays cannot be erected using town staff or town equipment. The “winter holiday display season” extends from 14 days before Thanksgiving until Jan. 15.

Town Administrator Michael Boynton told selectmen the new policy was crafted in response to the complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He said the town was within its rights to allow the crèche scene, since it was privately owned, as long as other groups also were allowed to put up displays that met safety and other guidelines.

The crèche scene is owned, installed, and maintained by the Walpole Chamber of Commerce, which inherited it from the Downtown Businessmen’s Association, according to former chamber president Tom Rockwood.

“We will absolutely abide by the policy the selectmen established,” he said.

Rockwood said the chamber had been aware of possible issues with the manger scene since Norwood was engulfed in controversy over its public crèche displays about 14 years ago. Quincy also ran into problems with a crèche at City Hall in 2001.

In Walpole, Rockwood said that over the years there had been “an occasional inquiry — I wouldn’t call it a complaint” about why the chamber put up a crèche display, and why it did not also put up something else for other religions.

“It was an open policy,” Rockwood said. “If somebody was willing to fund it, [the chamber] was more than open to other displays,” but no one stepped forward.

“It’s not like we’re trying to violate anyone’s sensibility,” said Dick Power, the chamber’s former secretary. “But there [have been] almost no complaints — one phone call in four years maybe.”

He said the chamber also owns, installs, and maintains the Santa sleigh and reindeer that are displayed in front of the old Walpole Town Hall in the center of town. They date to the 1950s, when they were hung “flying” over the street. The chamber also pays for a live Santa to greet children in a hut on the Common, he said.

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