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Bethel BOS Final Decision: Religious and Non-Religious Displays Will Be Allowed on Public Property, Lottery Selection Process Possible

Report by Paula Antolini, August 20, 2019, 9:46PM EDT

First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker (center) reads the final decision on religious displays on public property at the Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting, as Selectman Paul Szatkowski (left) and Selectman Richard Straiton (right) listen, on August 20, 2018.

VIEW VIDEO OF Board of Selectman August 20, 2019 meeting (in full) here (apologies….slight glitch on video, can’t seem to fix it, it is not starting at beginning…..just slide the bar back to view):


Bethel Advocate full coverage of the Bethel Board of Selectman meeting on August 20, 2019, concerning religious displays on public property in Bethel, CT. 
(Video ©2019 Bethel Advocate / Paula Antolini, all rights reserved.)

Last night’s bethel Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting had many items on the agenda but most people were there to hear the final decision about the issue concerning religious displays on public property in Bethel, CT. There were approximately 20 attendees.

The final decision from the Bethel Board of Selectman was approval of a policy allowing all religious and non-religious displays on public property in Bethel, CT. This policy includes a specific process that could possibly involve a lottery if more people apply for a display than there is room for those displays in P.T. Barnum Square. The applications are open to Bethel residents only. All applicants have to resubmit an new application each year.

This effectively means the Nativity display that has been on P.T. Barnum Square for over 40 years during the Christmas holidays could be eliminated in a lottery while other displays with no connection to Christmas are chosen instead.

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KNICKERBOCKER OPENING STATEMENT

First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker began the religious displays portion of the meeting by indicating they had received correspondence from Bill Hillman and it was the only correspondence, then he moved on to public comments.

However, before beginning public comments First Selectman Knickerbocker went over some guidelines. “Please be respectful,” he said, “I would ask that we not reference individuals, we all know what that story is.” He went on to clarify, “I noted a very interesting thing. The people who have spoken in the past who have written [letters to the BOS] extensively on this are very, very open to other religions besides Christianity when we are talking about use of public space.

Knickerbocker continued, “I have unfortunately heard some comments that are borderline disparaging against others and I want to point out something. The U.S. Constitution does not require people to be believers to exercise their constitutional rights. Those rights extend to everyone. And I know that nobody would say anything disparaging about another person’s religion, and I would ask you to treat people who are non-believers, or who believe differently, with the same respect. If you could do that I think that’s the way that we should go. We really can’t judge them, we shouldn’t.”

Knickerbocker said, “I’ve heard people say, ‘Wow they don’t believe in anything, they shouldn’t be able to display during the holiday season.’ I certainly would not determine what a person believes or not believes. They are our neighbors. They pay taxes to the town just like everybody else. They celebrate holidays in their own way. They may be non-believers, they may believe in something that just doesn’t include organized religion. So I would just ask that you respect that point of view as well because they do have rights under the First Amendment just like everybody else.”

First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker (center) reads the final decision on religious displays on public property at the Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting, as Selectman Paul Szatkowski (left) and Selectman Richard Straiton (right) listen, on August 20, 2018.

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THE BETHEL SELECTMEN FINAL STATEMENTS

Knickerbocker made a “review” statement before the official statements were read. He said, “This issue goes back ten years. It probably goes back with other selectmen even farther. I have had extensive conversations with the town attorney as well as other attorneys. I’ve had extensive conversations with other towns. This is truly a dichotomy.”

“The thing that I am really trying to make people understand is there’s no in-between. There’s no middle ground. There’s no third option. It’s either ‘no’ or it’s ‘yes’.”

–Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbcker

Knickerbocker said, “I read an editorial piece the other day that said, ‘We really want the selectmen to respect the tradition. We want that to stay. But we don’t want anything on the green that might say Satan on it.’ And the thing that I am really trying to make people understand is there’s no in-between. There’s no middle ground. There’s no third option. It’s either no or it’s yes.”

If they feel they’re not represented on that green, if they don’t like it, they don’t feel included, we, by law, must respect that. We can’t say, ‘Well we’re going to give you a different day and a different season’. If you think about that, that actually is government supporting a religion. It actually is supporting one group’s display over another and that’s exactly the point that we need to avoid. t’s exactly why the framers of the Constitution wrote it the way they did.”

Knickerbocker said, “So this has nothing to do with, as one speaker said in the last meeting, ‘Taking Christ out of Christmas.’ This is just about use of town property and what is appropriate and what is inclusive.

“One way or other the Town of Bethel is going to face a change,” Knickerbocker said, “After tonight there is going to be a change and I suspect some people are not going to like it no matter which way this goes. And again, it’s an either/or. We either allow the use of public property or we don’t allow the use of public property. There’s no other way around it.”

One way or other the Town of Bethel is going to face a change, there’s no way around it.”

–Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker

The BOS voting process began regarding “Consideration of recommendations from the Religious Holiday Display Committee.”

Selectman Richard Straiton might have been the hero to some last night when he was the first to read his prepared letter into the record, and made a motion to have no religious or non-religious displays be located at P.T. Barnum Square.” However, the vote was 2-1 against his motion so it did not pass.

“This is probably my hardest decision as a Selectman in the ten years that I have been on this board.”

–Bethel Selectman Richard Straiton

“This is probably my hardest decision as a Selectman in the ten years that I have been on this board,” Straiton said, “So it’s been a lot of thought put into this motion that I made. I love this town, as I mentioned, I grew up in this town, my family’s here, my family before me was here, and I hate to see any of the persistency in this town and I think this could open up the potential of litigation.”

Straiton said in part, “Being a life-long resident of Bethel I’ve seen the town grow and become more diversified. When I grew up here there were only four main churches in town. Today friends and family have the opportunity to attend, or are attending, more than 12 religious groups in our community. This shows how diverse we have become. I would like to point out that the creche has not always been at the P.T. Barnum Square.” He went on to describe how Christmas lights used to be hung in various parts of downtown Bethel and near Sycamore.

“I respect everyone in Bethel for their religious preference and those who have preferred preference,” Straiton stated, “We have become one full caring and compassionate town. I’m proud to be and serve in this town where I raised my family, up to three generations. Therefore I ask my fellow selectmen to vote at nothing pertaining to religious displays, signs or banners to be placed on Town of Bethel’s properties.”

“I move that no religious or non-religious displays be located at P.T. Barnum Square.”

Straiton mentioned that when the Religious Holiday Display Committee (RHDC) was trying to formulate recommendations they determined:

“There was no fair way to determine who will have priority at P.T. Barnum Square if in fact there are multiple suitors for the premises for the same period of time.”

Further comments Straiton made about the RHDC were:

  • “The committee was unable to come up with guidelines for who or what should be allowed other than grandfathering in certain displays, which was unacceptable”
  • The committee also did not suggest any other locations for such displays which may ease the burden of using P.T. Barnum Square particularly for winter and holiday displays.”
  • The committee was unable to provide guidelines as to what would be acceptable verses non-acceptable.”

If the Board if Selectmen allows one display we will have to allow all, no matter how offensive of the display, maybe to the Board of Selectmen or the townspeople,” Straiton said. “The risks of exposing the town to liability when one or more are denied access to set up their display at P.T. Barnum does not warrant the potential payment of taxpayers as a whole to defend litigation for any actions or non-actions by the Board of Selectmen.

“There are numerous properties, both commercial and residential, to allow for such displays without the necessity of the town government involvement,” said Straiton, “Until such time, standards as to what should and what should not be allowed in P.T. Barnum, the time frames of allowing such displays, how multiple organizations or individuals are guaranteed such positions, and such other situations and locations of displays, the town should refrain from granting any privilege of allowing any displays in P.T. Barnum Square.”

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Selectman Paul Szatkowski spoke about his views next and indicated that he was in favor of allowing all displays in Bethel. He said, “It’s not a religious display. It’s a cultural, historical holiday event. Whether it’s celebrated a Jewish tradition of having a Menorah, or having a creche, and you know what I go back to is, been here since ’76, every year there’s always been a creche there, every year there’s always been a holiday season, it’s a very, festive festive time of the yearit’s the event itself we’re celebrating.

Szatkowski said, “Matt was right when he said the Supreme court was bouncing from one side to the other. Is there a right answer? No. … It just comes down to the season itself. Is the creche offensive? No. Is the menorah offensive? No. The atheists, their sign last year, ‘Happy Holidays’, I don’t agree with the atheists, what they stand for, but are they playing into the season? Yes.”

Who’s going to make a decision on what should be in the sign itself?” said Szatkowski. “And I’m saying, that decision, whoever is making that decision it should be the Board of Selectmen. Matthew is the administrator. Rich Straiton and myself are the legislative arm of the Board of Selectmen”

Szatkowski continued, “Somebody said, ‘What about being in fear of being sued?I’m not afraid of that. I have to say that because you know what? The cases are on both sides. I don’t know how else to answer that, because it’s beemn a tradition since this country was formed and it was formed on Judeo/ Christian values.

“My observation is that we are making a mountain out of a molehill here…”

–Bethel Selectman Paul Szatkowski

“My observation is that we are making a mountain out of a molehill here, a little bit, yet I’m obliged by the First Amendment, unless the First Amendment says you can’t do that, and it doesn’t say that,” Szatkowski stated.

“So you know there’s going to be a group there that says, ‘Well I don’t like that holiday season’ but as long as their message is in with the context of the season, then it’s okay,” Szatkowski said, “So it’s up to the three of us, or whoever is sitting on the Board of Selectmen, top decide what is good or what is appropriate.” Szatkowski did not believe a committee could solve this. “The three of us have got to make that decision, period.”

“I don’t want to turn this into Times Square. That could happen. Anything could happen … I’m not going to let this turn into a mockery or a circus.”

—Bethel Selectman Paul Szatkowski

He suggested that there is only room for three displays in the square. “I don’t want to turn this into Times Square,” he said. “That could happen. Anything could happen.” he said. “I’m not going to let this turn into a mockery or a circus.”

“So I’m going to vote for this. (against Richard Straiton’s motion to have no displays).

*****

First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker spoke last, ready to read his prepared statement which included details of the new policy.

He began with a joke, and said, “You know, it’ so darn serious in here. Did your mom ever tell you to avoid religion and politics? We got both of them all wrapped up in the same thing.”

“I think this is the hardest thing that any of us has done because there’s no easy way out.”

–Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker

Knickerbocker said, “I think this is the hardest thing that any of us has done because there’s no easy way out. There’s a difficult decision to be made.”

I am not going to support the motion and I say that with a great deal of trepidation, said Knickerbocker, “but I’m going to rely on some optimism and some faith in my fellow man.”

“Many many towns have struggled with this across the United States, some have adopted inclusive displays and some of then, quite frankly, have had problems. They’ve had vandalism, they’ve had controversy or divisiveness in town,” he said.

Knickerbocker continued, I think as hard as it is, the safest solution is to just say, ‘Alright, fill the town with creches and Menorahs and anything else and put it on private property,” but in response to our citizenry who has spoken up on this, I’m going to support an inclusive display which I’ll read in a minute. So I will vote no on the motion. (against Richard Straiton’s motion to have no displays).

The BOS vote was taken, those in favor were First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker and Selectman Paul Szatkowski, opposed was Selectman Richard Straiton.

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THE NEW POLICY

Knickerbocker read his alternative proposal. He went over the history of the Nativity and other displays and controversy stemming from 2010 when it was first questioned when the town was handling the Nativity display on P.T. Barnum Square. He said that presently citizens and volunteers from the United Methodist Church in Bethel are insuring, storing and handling the display installation and the Town plays no part.

He said the Religious Holiday Display Committee was formed in December 2018 to make recommendations to the Board of selectmen regarding “a permanent policy to govern the placement of on religious displays on public property.”

The committee was charged with addressing the following:

  1. Determine if religious displays are to be allowed on public lands within the town.
  2. If yes, establish a timeframe for display.
  3. Determine maximum size.
  4. Determine the number of displays that can be accommodated within space at P.T. Barnum Square.
  5. Ascertain if additional locations within the town are suitable in addition to P.T. Barnum Square.
  6. Determine a method of space allocation or assignment if the number of displays exceeds space available.

Knickerbocker said that the committee voted on it’s recommendations on June 27, 2019.

He said, “The committee addressed some but not all of the questions above and recommended the following:

  1. Holiday displays should continue to be allowed on P.T. Barnum Square.
  2. Displays in any one given area should not exceed one-third of the available space wit two-thirds being kept open for foot traffic and logistics.
  3. Displays that have been approved in the previous year, 2018, be automatically allowed to be placed as they were the previous year, or grandfathered, but applications for newer displays be placed in a lottery to determine placement.”

“Analysis:

“The committee appeared to have difficulty achieving consensus although it did support continuing the tradition of allowing holiday displays on the green, it did not consider locations other than P.T. Barnum Square.

“Further, it supported on a divided vote, a policy that was specifically noted by the town attorney as improper, which is grandfathering displays based on past history.

“Policy Parameters:

“In reviewing the recommendations by the display committee and taking into account the legal parameters and analysis supplied by the town attorney, the Board of Selectman must consider the following:

  1. A policy that allows for placement of religious displays on town property cannot be discriminatory. It is an all-or-none proposition.
  2. If religious displays are to be permitted, non-religious displays cannot be denied nor edited nor censored.
  3. An allocation system must be provided that is fair and equitable to all applicants. Previously placed displays cannot be granted automatic placement on the basis of prior history.

BOS POLICY PROPOSAL PLACED ON RECORD, as a motion:

  1. Displays for the holiday season will be permitted on P.T. Barnum Square from the Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving [Nov. 26th this year] and January 7th of the following year.
  2. Applications will be accepted no earlier than October 1st or the first business day thereafter, and will be accepted no later than November 1st. Applications received after that date will not be considered.
  3. Applications for displays must be sponsored by a Bethel resident or organization. Applications from individuals not residing in the town of Bethel will not be considered.
  4. Applications must include proof of liability insurance, a physical rendering of the display showing accurate measurements and weights, physical dimensions, and any wording or copy that would be visible to the public. Applications may be reviewed by the town building inspector and may be denied on the basis of public safety concerns.
  5. The area reserved for display will not exceed one-third of the total open square footage of P.T. Barnum Square.
  6. In the event that qualified applications are received that exceed total square footage of offered displays, the placement will be determined by lottery. All applications will be subject to lottery regardless of the display status of prior years.
  7. The Board of Selectmen will consider applications for approval upon advice of the Parks and Recreation department that each application has met the requirements outlined above.

Knickerbocker said, “The above language was pulled from the temporary policy that we established last year.”

Straiton had a question for the town attorney about the legality of only allowing displays for Bethel residents. Attorney Lawlor said it is “probably” okay and that they’d deal with any future issues as they came up.

Straiton said that he wants to add that each applicant has to apply each year. Knickerbocker added to the motion, “8. Applications expire at the end of the season and all applications must be resubmitted the following year.

Szatkowski commented, “All in all I think we have to go forward because this represents what the people want.”

The vote was taken, those in favor, First selectman Matthew Knickerbocker and Selectman Paul Szatkowski, and opposed, Selectman Richard Straiton, motion passed.

*****

PUBLIC COMMENT

Only three residents gave public comment, and those individuals were Bill Hillman, Bob Legnard and Cynthia McCorkindale, in that order.


Bethel resident Bill Hillman holds up a dreidel as he gives public comment about a Menorah display, at the at the Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting on August 20, 2018.

Bethel resident Bill Hillman spoke in favor of the Menorah for which he’d recently raised funds to purchase and install in the square. He held up various objects of his Jewish faith such as a “mini Menorah” as he called it, and said, “That’s what it looks like.” He showed several other objects as he spoke about the ceremony he’d like to plan, which included handing some of these objects out to the crowd if the Menorah was allowed to be displayed in P.T. Barnum Square. He, at one point, walked up the the BOS table and spun a plastic dreidel on top to demonstrate how it worked. Hillman mentioned, “Some 62 people donated $2500 for a Menorah that has been purchased, roughly about $1700 has been spent. I very much would like to add the light of Hanukkah to the existing light that comes from the holiday tree, the Christmas tree, the Nativity.”

Hillman continued, mentioning he had full support and generous donations towards the Menorah from the members and volunteers who supported the Nativity. He also said, “We know from last year that there are people who do not have a religious preference, no belief in a deity, who want to, and should have the right to put up a nice holiday display wishing the rest of us happy holidays. It’s all positive. The First Amendment, while it protects against the establishment of a religion, the second part of that says ‘nor prohibit the free exercise of thereof’. So my view in this is that you have a wonderful holiday tradition that has gone on for decades, I would like to add to that.”

Hillman said, “I really can’t plan for a First Night event unless the Board of Selectmen demonstrates the courage to say, ‘We believe that the people of Bethel will be positive and all comers who want to have a winter holiday display should have their place in P.T. Barnum.”“I truly hope to be able to move from this meeting to being able to form a committee of a few people to be able to have a First Night of Hanukkah celebration, which will be Sunday night, December 22nd … [looking at the three Selectmen] It’s kind of up to the three of you.”

Bethel resident Bob Legnard gives public comment at the at the Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting on August 20, 2018.

Bethel resident Bob Legnard spoke next and reminded everyone that he is repeating what he said at other meetings, which was, “After hearing all the comments the other night I still believe in what I said the other night. We need to be a positive town. We need positive individuals. The atheist banner was a positive thing, with ‘neighbors, Happy Holidays’ was positive, and I think doing the Menorah would be positive to the town and positive to the people of Bethel and inclusive to the people of Bethel.”

Bethel resident Cynthia McCorkindale gives public comment at the at the Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting on August 20, 2018.

Bethel resident Cynthia McCorkindale said, “My issue is that, whether it is positive or negative, I think that we’re not firmly in the camp of religion or culture, and I think we’re more in the area of culture/tradition when were talking about the holiday displays.

McCorkindale continued, “So Christmas in in December, generally celebrated December 25th, Hanukkah is always in December, has their own celebration. I mean maybe there are people who celebrate the Winter Solstice. I just don’t know, I can’t find out, winter holidays atheists are representing, unless they are just co-opting s holiday and want to put their sign up. Why couldn’t anybody out a sign up? Atheists, we don’t single them out because of their non-belief, then let’s not single them out.”

McCorkindale said, “In February there’s a ‘Day of a Thousand Buddhas’ so they don’t want to put up a Christmas display, I haven’t heard that. I haven’t heard that Chinese New Year, that they want to put up a Christmas display or a winter display. I guess what I’m saying is our tradition from the very beginning of this country, and yes we have many other things that come into view, but if you were saying the positivity of the people, that also would include the will of the people, and you know, you could say popular vote. I think if a petition was circulated tomorrow to have a special town meeting to actually vote on this issue, you would have the amount of signatures you needed like that [snapped her fingers]. And then you would be in a special town meeting. And then you could or could not affect the vote of the people.”

McCorkindale said, “So I think this has become a tempest in a teapot. I think it has become waaay more, waaay more weight to this than it needs to be had. It’s almost like there are other ways to deal with this rather than a group, And again I don’t care if they believe or don’t believe, but a group to come in and literally, you know, suck the joy out of Christmas, it doesn’t make any sense to me. The fact that the creche has been here forever, it’s a tradition, it’s a very well established holiday, Hanukkah, I just don’t get the holiday aspect or the cultural aspect of what’s being promoted in terms of signage, and if you open it up to a lottery you are open up Pandora’s Box. So you don’t know what’s going to come out of that hat. So I think this is a very very, you are on a precipice right now, Selectmen, and I just want to out that out there. You cold be wakking into a very dark place.”

*****

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

It should be noted that the meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag as usual, which included the words “one nation under God” and the meeting ended by the Board of Selectman approving a process that could possibly eliminate the main Christian holiday display, the Nativity, all together during the Christmas holiday season because a few individuals in Bethel, mainly atheists, who want to advertise their right believe as they wish (or not believe in said displays) felt they were not being included.

From observing the three “official” Religious Holiday Display Committee meetings over the past months and those particular residents’ actions last year, and including two of them being members on the religious Holiday Display Committee where they seemed to be continuing their crusade, the main individuals who claimed there was “no inclusion” in a holiday they don’t even celebrate are Danielle Monroe, James Naddeo and Dianna Naddeo.

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SUMMARY

It is left to be seen how this all plays out with the new BOS policy of holiday display applications open to all Bethel residents, for display of religious or non-religious displays or signs on P.T. Barnum Square during the holiday season.

We already see interest for a Satan display in Bethel. In an article on https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com dated July 14, 2019, entitled, “Despite Benefitting from City’s Holiday Display Policy, Atheists Demand Fairness” written by Hemant Mehta, it reads, “The Satanic Temple’s Lucien Greaves tells me in a statement: ‘Creating a Satanic display for Bethel will be a particularly enticing project if it turns out that it will help us to help the town resolve any contention that might arise from anything less than a fully neutral public forum policy.’ “

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NOTE from the EDITOR: Is this an example of the recent #thisisbethel promotion that represents our town? This is your town, do you believe the residents should decide what takes place here in a majority vote? Or that three elected officials should have complete control even if you do not agree with their decision, or it does not conform to the majority opinion? Also, was this the best process by which this controversy could have been decided? Are you satisfied with the outcome? By which priocess would you have decided it? Are you satisfied with the decision-making process in our town? Are you prepared for the possibility of NO Nativity in the square this holiday season, and instead, possibly atheist and/or Satan displays? This is now a reality. Will this effect your vote in this November 2019 election?

Write to us at betheladvocate@aol.com or post your thoughts on our Facebook page under this article post, CLICK HERE and tell us your thoughts.

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HISTORY OF THE RELIGIOUS DISPLAY CONTROVERSY

The controversy apparently began in 2017 but heated up in November-December 2018 when James Naddeo attempted to submit a display for an atheist banner and it was denied. (Read: “Controversy Surrounds the Placement of the New Nativity in Bethel CT” from November 20, 2018.)

The Board of Selectmen said, at the time, there was only room for one display and the people representing the Nativity had already been the first to apply. However, another aspect of the denial was later revealed when it was learned that the application was incomplete, not containing an insurance binder or an illustration of the banner design or a size indication.

Mr. James Naddeo claims to have approached the American Atheist Legal Center, an organization outside of Bethel, to merely obtain advice on display design. This is after Naddeo previously stated in social media in 2018, “My position from the start of this conversation is that I don’t think religious iconography belongs in public spaces.” He also said, “The town (government) shouldn’t get into the business of curating religious displays nor should we open up space for this type of thing … I don’t want to the town sued when someone makes an issue of it then taxpayer money has to defend the town and its leaders as a result.”

This transpired into the atheist organization’s attorney, Geoffrey T. Blackwell, sending a letter to the Board of Selectman representing “a Bethel resident” who was later revealed to be James Naddeo.

A November 17, 2018 article written by Hemant Mehtathe on the friendlyatheist.patheos.com website, entitled “Atheists Call for Bethel (CT) to End Religious Favoritism in Holiday Displays” read, “Last October, a resident of Bethel, Connecticut contacted American Atheists because of a local church/state separation problem. There was going to be a Nativity scene outside the town’s municipal building, and the resident wanted to counter it with a display of his own. AA asked the city for instructions on the resident’s behalf.” 

The Litigation Counsel, American Atheist Legal Center, attorney Geoffrey T. Blackwell, wrote to Bethel’s town attorney Martin Lawlor on November 16, 2018 regarding “Winter Holiday Displays on Town Property” stating, “Late last year, you and I discussed the matter of religious holiday displays installed on property owned by the Town of Bethel. A Bethel resident wishing to place a non-religious holiday display on P.T. Barnum Square (the Square) was informed that he would need to complete an ‘Application for Community Use of Parks and Recreation Municipal Center Facilities’ and provide a certification of liability insurance in order to do so. At the same time, it appeared that other residents were able to place a religious display on the Square after only a brief conversation with Matthew Knickerbocker, Bethel’s First Selectman.”

The AA, whose attorney Blackwell is representing the Bethel resident who is not named, claims a discrepancy between when the meeting was held to approve the Nativity and when the actual approval was agreed upon.

They requested that, “The American Atheists Legal Center (AALC) asks that the Board of Selectmen rescind the decision to approve the nativity while denying all remaining applications for the 2018 holiday season and instead seek a solution to the problem of limited space in P.T. Barnum Square that does not unlawfully discriminate between Bethel residents on the basis of their religious identity. The AALC would also like to offer the Board of Selectmen (and the soon-to-be-established Display Policy Committee) its assistance in developing an equitable policy to govern the installation of temporary displays on town property in the future and develop methods to ensure that the policy is properly applied by the Parks and Recreation Department.”

This escalated to the attorney stating they would take “remedies for the violations…if the city does not take steps to ensure that all its residents have equal access to public facilities.” The letter dated November 28, 2018 to Bethel town attorney Martin Lawlor from Mr. Blackman reads, “These issues could be avoided in the future by ensuring that all residents follow the Parks and Recreation Department’s established procedure when obtaining authorization to erect temporary displays on public property. Please inform me of the steps the city intends to take to ensure that all residents are given equal access to public facilities. If the city does not take steps to ensure that all its residents have equal access to public facilities, American Atheists is prepared to assist its Bethel supporters in pursuing judicial remedies for the violations described above. Enclosed with this letter is a Data Preservation Notice requesting that the Town of Bethel refrain from destroying, altering, or otherwise disposing of potentially relevant materials.”

There was an additional letter written to Lisa Bergh, Town Clerk, on October 20, 2017, asking about procedures for the application process for a display.

VIEW ALL LETTERS IN FULL HERE.

An earlier article was published on atheists.org by the American Atheists group on November 16, 2018 entitled, “American Atheists Demands CT Town Stop Religious Favoritism in Holiday Displays.” View article here.

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RELIGIOUS HOLIDAY DISPLAY COMMITTEE

Eventually a Religious Holiday Display Committee was appointed by the BOS. Their charge was to make recommendations to the board about policy regarding religious displays on public property in Bethel, CT. The board contained the same people who were involved in the controversy in 2018 and it appeared constantly split 4-4 in viewpoint after one member of the 9-member committee dropped out early.

Chairwoman Holly Heslin stated at the August 6, 2019 BOS meeting, that among other recommendations, the one concession in the recommendations to the BOS that the committee made is that they gave preference to any displays that were in P.T. Barnum Square the previous year. These were the Nativity (there for 40+ years) and the atheist banner (just placed in December 2018), then anyone else submitting an application for a display would be entered into a lottery to decide who was approved. This was agreed upon by all committee members. The town attorney quickly denied that recommendation once it was received, saying it was against the law, and the BOS agreed.

So the Bethel Board of Selectmen were the final decision makers on this controversy, as you are now aware, from the decision made during the August 20, 2019 meeting.

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VIDEO COMING SOON! Check back.

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