The August 6th Board of Selectman meeting was primarily focused on the recommendations of the Religious Display Committee. Readers may recall that the committee was formed after the controversy last fall when a national atheist group, with assistance from some local residents, successfully coerced the Town to allow them to display a banner adjacent to the traditional Nativity display on P.T. Barnum Square.
The Chair of that Committee, Holly Heslin, discussed their work with the Board after extensive public input by a standing room only crowd. Her statement that the issue is about the crèche, and statements that they focused on their mandate, religious displays rather than all displays, puts part of the issue into clear focus. Much of the challenge is from non-religious groups or groups with no significant local membership.
We applaud Selectman Szatkowski, as did many in the audience, for stating his view that the Board of Selectmen need to do what the people elected them to do, make touch decisions. We also applaud First Selectman Knickerbocker for making the point that our Town faces a potentially unending string of expensive lawsuits, estimated at up to $100,000 each, should it deny access to certain groups.
As currently framed, the choice will ultimately be to allow all and any displays or no displays at all.
Like many in Town, we find the potential loss of the Nativity display in Bethel to be unacceptable collateral damage in the wider cultural wars. We equally find the idea of groups like The Satanic Temple, who are on record that they find "Creating a Satanic display for Bethel … a particularly enticing project." to be unacceptable – especially in the light that we are unaware of any Satanic Temple members here in Bethel.
We believe that there is a very reasonable set of changes that can help sort through this dense thicket.
First, all applications for any display on Town property should be required to come from bona-fide local residents or groups, not national organizations looking to fight their battle on our Town Square.
Second, we should consider holding an annual Town meeting to approve all applications for displays on Town property. While not lawsuit-proof, it represents the will of the people and therefor is much more defensible than a decision by elected or appointed officials.
An alternative is for a group of local citizens to form a P.T. Barnum Square Committee as a non-profit charged with the promotion of P.T. Barnum Square and Bethel. That group would be tasked with organizing and approving any displays on P.T. Barnum Square. This has the benefit of moving the liability and the rancor away from Town Hall, and increases the likelihood that in the event a denied group wanted to sue over it that organizations of similar focus would be more inclined to help defend against a lawsuit than if our Town itself were sued.
Such a group would need a clear mandate to be as inclusive as possible while adhering to community standards. For example, political demonstrations, which we believe the atheist banner was, could be separated from traditional celebrations. And displays by outside groups intended to provoke local response and make a national statement could be properly dealt with for what they are: not appropriate on our Town green.
But we must find a way forward.
Eliminating important cultural traditions in the name of safe haven from threatened lawsuits is an unacceptable surrender.
So is bankrupting the Town defending from unending outside assaults on our collective heritage.