Town Changes Decades Old Display Due to Legal Threats

Vernon, Connecticut has had a Christmas nativity display for decades. And it appears it will have one this year, too. But this year’s display will be different in that it will be smaller, relocated and surrounded by other winter religious symbols celebrating such holidays as Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, pagan winter solstice, or even atheist beliefs.

The policy is all-inclusive and reflects the diversity of Vernon residents, Mayor Ellen L. Marmer said. Marmer crafted the document along with Town Administrator Christopher Clark after claiming to seek input and meeting with representatives from area religious groups during the spring and summer.

Not so, claims the Republican Town Committee. “There are some fairly strong opinions on this issue, but she did it on her own and not with any input of Republican council members,” Daniel E. Anderson, a Republican Town Councilman said. Republicans agree with allowing for greater diversity, Anderson said, adding, “We see all these displays as being a cultural experience of the town, and I think that’s healthy, but this is a community issue and it needs to be debated by the greater community. There was no facilitating or getting of opinions here.”

The need for a change in policy became apparent last year after the town received a complaint from Dennis Paul Himes, the state director of the American Atheists, who threatened legal action, saying the town had violated the constitutional provision of separation of church and state by allowing the Christian crèche to be displayed on town property.

The new policy does allow for a nativity scene, but limits it to a 10-by-10-foot space, and the traditional crèche, which is owned jointly by area Christian churches, won’t fit that space.

“Everybody has a limited space and there are only a number of spaces available,” said Marmer, adding, “We had to allow for diversity and give everyone a chance to exhibit. We just wanted to make sure we were being fair. Either you do nothing or you give everyone equal footing.”

But Republican Town Councilman Daniel E. Anderson says only a few more feet would have been needed for the original nativity to fit.

“That’s irritated some people,” said Anderson, who has followed the issue closely and believes a space of 10-by-15 feet would be adequate to bring the old crèche back. The Christian churches are now “going to have to revisit what they display, and potentially buy another crèche.”

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