Nativity Scene May Be on Ballot in November

BERKLEY, Michigan — A residents group is on a mission to bring the baby Jesus back to City Hall.

Members of Berkley Citizens Vote YES to Christmas Holiday Display want to bring back a nativity scene on city property outside City Hall at 3338 Coolidge. They are on a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot in November to amend the city charter and force the city to display the creche.

“I’m tired of anything Christian in this country being attacked,” said Georgia Halloran, a member of the group. “I’m most angry about the ACLU and the city capitulating to them.”

The City Council shortly before Christmas last year voted to remove a nativity scene from outside City Hall after meeting with those on both sides of the issue.

“It was a tough decision for everyone,” City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa said. “I think this is one of the toughest issues the council had to face because we want to represent everyone in the community.”

Last year the American Civil Liberties Union objected that the nativity scene was tantamount to a governmental endorsement of a single religion.

“If it’s only a nativity scene, the U.S. Supreme Court has said it violates the principal that that government must remain neutral on matters of religion,” said Michael Steinberg, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan.

Municipalities that want to display Christian icons during the holidays must also include other religious symbols, such as the Star of David, as well as secular elements like Santa Claus or Frosty the Snowman, according to existing law, Steinberg said.

Berkley tried to adhere to that standard and added other religious and secular elements.

Ultimately, a majority of the City Council decided to remove the complete holiday display, in part because mixing Frosty the Snowman with religious elements struck some as undignified, Bais-DiSessa said.

Officials in Ferndale a few years ago made a similar decision to remove their holiday display items even though they complied with the legal standard.

A consortium of Berkley churches favored removing the nativity scene from City Hall, and the council voted to turn the creche over to the churches which are to display it on a rotating basis.

Halloran said many residents were upset with the decision since the holiday display met legal requirements.

“We believe we were OK, constitutionally, last year,” she said. “I think a lot of the City Council members are afraid of a lawsuit and they just buckled.”

Councilman Dale GoodCourage said removing the display was the right choice.

“I stand by my vote to move the nativity scene and give it to its rightful place of designation in front of the churches,” he said.

The petitioners have to collect 580 signatures that can be verified and wording approved by Aug. 28 to make the Nov. 6 election ballot, said Berkley City Clerk Karen Brown.

“I’m sure this is going to be a big issue,” Bais-DiSessa said.

This article appeared in the Daily Tribune, June 20, 2007

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