BETHEL Nativity scene, atheist banner spark debate
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 this 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 its 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting 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 over another.New guidelinesThe Board of Selectmen this week passed a temporary policy that is 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 non-existent one the town had before.“It’s a good start having a neutral policy that is clearly spelled out well in advance with an application period that allows someone to apply and if something is wrong they can correct it,” Fish said.In a letter to the Board of Selectmen, the American Atheists had 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 only 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. Knickerbocker said he is not yet sure how the selectmen will decide who to appoint.“We just want to make sure we’re going to have people be open-minded and look at all aspects of this, regardless of religious affiliation,” he said.Coming togetherThe 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. “That is the route the town is taking and that’s the right route. To say everyone should have fair ground and a fair opportunity.”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.“My feeling is there is an opportunity here,” Parille said. “There is an opportunity, I think for everyone, for the town, for the Christians, for non-believers, to come together.”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. “I appreciated that (Martin) took the time to hear from me and I took the time to listen to him, as well.”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 celebrate,” 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.”Pushing for inclusivenessAt 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 to all beliefs.“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. “They’re working on that and doing it without prejudice or favoritism toward any one particular community.”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.