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BETHEL Selectmen to vote on holiday sign from ‘your atheist neighbors’

November 27, 2018

BETHEL — The selectmen will vote next week on an application to put a “happy holidays” banner in PT Barnum Square signed “your atheist neighbors.”

The display would go next to a nativity set that an atheist group had requested be removed.

In front of a packed room on Monday evening, the selectmen unanimously approved guidelines on what displays are allowed in the square, but held off on voting on the sign because they did not know how big it was or whether it could be set up elsewhere.

Town Attorney Marty Lawlor said the sign likely would need to be accepted under the guidelines the selectmen had approved moments earlier. These policies state the displays cannot defame or attack another religion or person.

“I don’t think (the proposed banner) is mean-spirited,” Lawlor said. “I don’t think this is demeaning to anybody. It’s just encroaching on somebody else’s use of the property.”

Residents gasped and groaned when First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker described the sign.

Many of the them had attended the meeting to support the new nativity set in PT Barnum Square after the backlash from the atheist group.

The American Atheists Legal Center had requested the selectmen rescind their approval of the nativity after learning an application for a non-religious display had not been accepted.

The selectmen had not voted on the application two weeks ago because it was missing required information, including an image of the display and an insurance form. The resident since submitted this information.

The sign shows a blue sky with snow falling on white-capped mountains. It reads: “This season, no matter what you celebrate or why, Happy Holidays! — your atheist neighbors.” The sign also includes the American Atheists logo.

Public comment had closed before residents learned about the banner, but many mumbled in dismay and shouted out suggestions for what the selectmen should do.

“It’s the signature that’s bothering everybody, right?” called out Tim Martin, who was part of the group that raised money to replace to replace the old nativity set that had been displayed in the square for decades. “The message is fine, ‘happy holidays.’”

Martin suggested asking the applicant if he would display the sign elsewhere in town, not next to the nativity set.

The new guidelines permit holiday displays in PT Barnum Square only, but that was intended to prevent religious displays from being set in front of Town Jall, which is illegal, officials said.

“To me, this doesn’t appear to be religious in nature, so I suppose it could go someplace else,” Lawlor said.

Knickerbocker said the guidelines intend to ensure the town is inclusive when permitting holiday displays.

“We value our citizens’ right to display holiday messages that reflect their culture and traditions, whether religious or secular, but we encourage those messages to be positive in nature,” the policy reads.

The policy is meant to get the town through this holiday season. A committee will be formed to develop permanent protocols next year.

Guidelines also require displays to be sponsored by local residents or organizations and ban excessively large displays that could hinder public safety.

Many residents spoke in support of the nativity set, describing how their children loved the display and arguing it represented both culture and community, rather than a purely religious message.

“The nativity is actually a very unifying thing,” resident Donna Bowman said. “We could move it, perhaps, to the grounds of a church, but probably it would just be the people that go to that church that see it. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me to not have Christmas stripped of all meaning.”

The selectmen plan to vote on the sign at their Dec. 4 meeting.

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