Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon mayor preparing to set new rules for holiday displays

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
January 2, 2008

VERNON - Mayor Jason L. McCoy says he will rewrite the policy for holiday displays on the town green after he rescinded the former policy crafted by the previous mayor.

The now-defunct policy was crafted in August by then-mayor Ellen Marmer and voided in its entirety shortly after McCoy took office on November 21.

McCoy "believes in the concept of inclusion, and would like administration to process any requests for use of Central Park, as has been done in the past, and that the town be as inclusive as possible to allow persons to express their First Amendment privileges," Town Administrator Christopher Clark wrote in a memo to the town clerk's office.

On Monday McCoy said he rescinded Marmer's policy in the hopes that the traditional Christian nativity could be returned to Central Park.

The life-sized, circa 1940s crèche, which until last year sat on the town green every Christmas season, was too large for the 10-by-10-foot space allotted under Marmer's policy.

As a result, area churches banded together over the summer to solicit donations to buy a new, smaller, nativity scene.

"You had groups that do a lot of charity work in town who had to raise so much money . . . and I was hoping to avoid having them do that, but it didn't square out that way," McCoy said.

The new nativity, which consists of three figures and a small stable, cost roughly $4,500 and had already been purchased by the time the policy had been voided, McCoy said.

The traditional crèche, meanwhile, was refurbished and sits in front of St. Bernard Church. It is owned by area Christian churches.

According to the Rev. Cynthia Carr, associate pastor at First Congregational Church in Vernon, because of its age and historical significance the older scene will remain at St. Bernard for safety reasons.

The need for a policy came about after local resident Dennis Paul Himes, the state director of the American Atheists, threatened legal action against the town, saying it violated the constitutional provision of separation of church and state by allowing a Christian crèche to be displayed on town property.

Renovations to Central Park - which required the cordoning off and excavation of the grassy surface between West Main Street and Park Place - made it impractical for the nativity scene to be placed in the park last Christmas.

Instead, it was placed in front of St. Bernard Church for the 2006 holiday season. But the issue came to a head when the Republican Town Committee passed a unanimous resolution requesting the scene representing Jesus' birth be returned to its traditional spot in Central Park for 2007.

McCoy says that he will now begin meeting with area religious leaders as well as those who have an interest in helping shape the new policy, much like Marmer did last year, and expects to have guidelines within six months.

"We have to make a decision on how we're going to handle it for next year," McCoy said. "We have to get the public's input into this."

According to federal case law, restrictions placed on size and location of displays do not violate the U.S. Constitution, but content cannot be constrained, unless the message crosses the boundaries of hate speech or pornography.

A sign erected by the atheists on Dec. 1 followed the parameters on space, but some in town said the message was clearly derogatory towards religious groups.

That three-sided sign displays an image of the World Trade Center buildings before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 with the message: Imagine No Religion.

"It's not that I particularly agree with any message, nor am I pleased with the message the atheists put up, but if we're going to allow this, we have to give everyone a fair shot at displaying their message, as long as they're not hurting anyone," McCoy said.

©Journal Inquirer 2008