Report by Paula Antolini, August 6, 2019, 7:06AM EDT
IMPORTANT NOTICE: (Scroll to bottom of article.)
Bethel residents have mere hours left to do their research and prepare their public comments, or write and email their letters to the Bethel Board of Selectmen, should they choose to do so regarding the topic of religious displays on Bethel public property, before a final decision is made by the Bethel Board of Selectmen (BOS) on August 6th.
A Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting is scheduled take place on August 6, 2019 where supposedly there will be discussion and a final decision made by the Selectmen about the controversial topic of religious displays on public property in Bethel, CT. A BOS agenda confirmation was just posted this afternoon, but could possibly change by 24 hours before the meeting begins, so check back). The BOS meeting will be in in Room A of the CJH Municipal Center, 1 School Street, Bethel, CT, at 7:00pm, moved to a larger room if attendance requires that.
THE MOST RECENT (AND LAST) RELIGIOUS HOLIDAY DISPLAY COMMITTEE (RHDC) MEETING ON JULY 27, 2019
Present: Chairwoman Holly Heslin, Tim Martin, Mary Shepheard, Danielle Monroe, Frances Pulle, Aaron Vincent and Robin Dowding. Diana Naddeo
arrived at 6:38 p.m. Chairwoman Heslin called the meeting to order at 6:35 p.m.
Just as Donald Borsch Jr. made a long statement during public comments at the July 20, 2019 RHDC meeting, another resident, Keith Snyder, made a similarly long statement (6 minutes long to be exact, he said he timed it) at the July 27, 2019 RHDC meeting, only it was completely different.
Snyder said he moved here in August 2014 with his two boys after a separation from his wife 2 weeks earlier, and he loved the town and felt that it was someplace safe. After four months passed he saw the creche. “I stopped and just stood there with my mouth open. I know that’s the kind of thing you say when your exaggerated, but it’s not, I literally stood there with my mouth literally open, and suddenly my safe little town was a little less safe,” Snyder said.
Snyder continued, “To understand why, you may have to understand something that may not be in your experience. I grew up with swastikas spray painted on my house and crossed burned into my lawn, regularly, for years. And regularly, for years, the local good Christians turned their eyes away and pulled their shades down. It wasn’t their business, they didn’t want to get involved. The only person that ever helped us scrub the swastikas off, as far as I remember, was the German lady across the street [name garbled] but those weren’t really good Christians,” Snyder said.
Snyder also talked about seeing a swastika on the Bethel train station sign, that he decided to scrub off with a toothbrush because, ‘It wasn’t important to my neighbors,” he said.
He compared it to a “a little statue of Jesus” and “which patch of land it goes on” that he said was important to his neighbors, “and keeping other people’s things off that land at the same time, which is odd because Jesus never said he wanted a little statue of himself,” said Snyder. “You want your statutes, in a time and space, between certain dates, that’s what’s important to you. And by letting you do it, the town says that’s what’s important to the town.“
Snyder referred to what Jesus said and stated “What He does care about, and He makes this very clear, is how you treat neighbors and strangers. That’s what he says, flat out, that he cares about. Had you behaved as if you loved your neighbor and cared for strangers, none of this would be happening.”
Snyder continued, “Okay I want an atheist sign, and I’m willing to share. I’m hoping to share. I don’t mind that other things are up at the same time. I hope they’re up, it’s great, it’s sharing with my neighbors. I do care that if accorded the same respect as other displays, but respect doesn’t mean that if you’re not using something you’ll allow everybody else to split the leftovers, that’s not respect. Everybody knows that’s not respect. You know that’s not respect, that’s winning, To me, sharing is the win.“
Snyder believes that to justify their positions, “pro-creche people” say they’ve lived here a long time so their opinion counts more, or there are more of them so what they say should matter more.
Resident John Hamlin also spoke during public comments and said, “Born and raised in Bethel, I can remember when they had a cross there over our symbol up there (points to town logo on wall behind committee members) but then they took cross down from the symbol because that was offensive.” Speaking about the religious display, he continued, “The Supreme court has already ruled on this, that it’s a tradition, there are no arguments. It’s always been a tradition.”
Hamlin said, “It’s ridiculous that this town, the ‘House of God,’ if you say it in Hebrew and you say ‘Beth-El’, it was formed by an ecclesiastic society that didn’t go five extra miles to Danbury, and back then there was no wagon. So a lot of people from New York moved up here in the last fifty years and they don’t like the way things are run up here. This has always been a tradition, just like the statue they had, I believe in Maryland, they just decided that, and that was a tradition. So people can sue until the cows come home, and they will, and you’ll appeal and they’ll appeal and hopefully this doesn’t go to the Supreme Court like the Danbury Hat Factory did many years ago, but I don’t think there is any argument here that it is a tradition. You’re never going to make everybody happy,” Hamlin said. “We live in a republic and we elect people democratically so if people don’t like decisions they can always change who is representing them.”
PUBLIC COMMENTS ARE CLOSED, THE COMMITTEE DISCUSSION BEGINS
The committee refers to and discusses documents (flow chart and documents from Town of Bethel attorney Martin Lawlor):
After public comments were closed, the committee Chairwoman Holly Heslin held up what she referred to as a hand out and flow chart, a document she described as, “This really great flow chart that one of our board members, committee members, Danielle, provided to me, and I thought it was great, so I asked that it be included today, and I really think it will help guide us and keep us on track.”
Unfortunately July 27th meeting attendees (audience) were not able to see this chart and several other documents sent to the committee by Town Attorney Martin Lawlor, with his detailed comments and answers to the committee’s questions they had sent him. The committee referred to these documents during the entire meeting, so it made the meeting more difficult for the audience to follow. These documents were also NOT added to the meeting minutes recorded by Dionne Craig at a later date as shown on the town website or even referred to as an attachment.
Recording secretary Dionne Craig added that she used the document to copy information to the agenda. “When you read the agenda, I did copy off of Danielle so I just felt there’s no plagiarism … since she had sent it I just filled in the agenda off of that.”
There appears to be a lot of conversation and contact between committee members and creation of documents not on committee time, since several documents appeared to have been created between “official” meeting one on July 20 and “official” meeting two on July 27, and these were not shared with the public in any way (including in meeting minutes posted later too) other than partially reading sections out of context during the meeting.
Bethel Advocate was able to obtain the three documents from the July 27, 2019 meeting. VIEW DOCUMENTS (MISSING FROM THE JULY 27th MEETING MINUTES) AT BOTTOM OF THIS ARTICLE.
Consideration of approval of minutes from regular meeting, Thursday,
June 20, 2019:
Danielle Monroe made a motion, which was seconded by Diana Naddeo to
approve the minutes of regular meeting, Thursday, June 20, 2019. Vote, all
in favor, motion approved unanimously.
Meeting minutes from the July 20th meeting were reviewed and approved unanimously, however, note that questions have been brought up at this meeting and also a recent June 10, 2019 Charter Revision Committee meeting, about the validity of their meeting minutes regarding “public comment” NOT properly reflecting what people actually have said in their comments. Also one Religious Holiday Display Committee member, Fran Pulle, voted to NOT approve the July 6th meeting minutes due to a similar discrepancy, she stated in her vote at the July 20th meeting.
Consideration of Approval for Holiday Displays on Town Property:
As the July 27th Religious Holiday Display meeting proceeded, the next discussion and vote by the committee pertained to whether or not to recommend to the Board of Selectmen that they should allow Holiday Displays on PT Barnum Square and other town approved areas.
Holly Heslin made a motion, which was seconded by Frances Pulle to
recommend to the Board of Selectmen that Holiday Displays should be
allowed on PT Barnum Square and other town approved areas.
After Chairwoman Heslin asked if discussion was needed, committee member Frances Pulle said, “This is actually the first thing we talked about at our first meeting (RE: March 14, 2019 meeting, see NOTE* below), when we went through that list of details that Mr. Knickerbocker had given us. And I remember Tony had said, ‘If we vote no then we can leave right now.’ And I think someone said, No you can’t do that.’ But here we are back to the same question.”
Fran was referring to the first of three “technically” not “official” meetings that occurred or were scheduled to occur on March 14, 2019 and April 25, 2019 (and May 9, 2019 meeting was cancelled.) This is because on May 1, 2019, after two meetings had already taken place, committee members were notified in an email from secretary Dionne Craig, which read in part, “Before the next meeting stop by the town clerk’s office to be sworn in.” Also on May 1, 2019, committee members received an email from town clerk Lisa Bergh that they read, “Technically you have not been appointed by the Board of Selectmen yet therefore please refrain from coming to my office to be sworn in.” Bergh stated in the email, “It is my understanding that you will be sworn in at the next Board of Selectman meeting. You will be notified at that point to be sworn in.”
It appears that the public was not aware of the first three meetings, and since members were not sworn in, should the meeting officially be on the record of meeting minutes in the first place? Or should that have started over? They did have to re-elect officers. First Selectman Knickerbocker said “no voting took place” so it should be allowed. But Knickerbocker said the Town attorney told him there is no such thing as a “casual” committee not on record) which is what Knickerbocker said when asked how could a committee not be sworn in?
After Chairwoman Holly Heslin asked if there was anyone wanting to discuss the matter, committee member Danielle Monroe said, “My personal feeling is, and I can only speak for me, is I think we have done a great job for the most part, having a respectful dialogue on all of these things, we hashed everything through and I think we needed to. I don’t have anything left that I haven’t offered. I hope that I have listened attentively to what everyone else had to say. So I’m good.” Frances Pulle said, “So we’re ready to vote.”
Heslin asked the question for the vote: “Shall the Town of Bethel allow displays on P.T. Barnum Square and the two other identified triangles?
Pulle mentioned, “The question is kind of skewed because it looks like it’s just religious. The question should really be, you know, ‘religious and other’.” Monroe quickly answered, “If you look at it Fran, they’re broken apart, both of those things are addressed.” Pulle said, “Alright then we’ll do it that way. It just can’t be one question then.”
Heslin said, “In response to your comment Fran, I would just like to say this is the religious display committee and the committee was formed on the contention during the holidays, around holiday displays. That’s really I think the only purpose of our committee, is to make a recommendation about religious displays. I think we heard from Beth, who’s from Zoning… I think she’s from Planning & Zoning … and you know, they have their own regulations that would cover the rest.”
Monroe then commented, “Can I just clarify something? Since this is my wording I just want to make sure that my wording is clear and what my intention was. But I had broken out those two questions for a very specific reason because I think there’s a difference between putting candy canes on the square or holiday lights, or whatever, so then there’s putting religious displays out there, so when I said ‘non-religious’ that’s what I was referencing, as opposed to, as we’ve already decided, atheist displays are not considered non-religious they are considered a belief system. Clarifying in case that was unclear.”
“Okay so everybody gets that,” said Heslin, “We’re just talking about actual religious displays. Alright?”
Heslin read the question again, “Should the Town of Bethel allow religious displays on P.T. Barnum Square and any other property that’s available and approved by the town or Park and Rec?
Tim Martin then brought up a point that it is three different “multiple choices.” “What do you mean multiple choices?” Heslin asked. Martin replied, “Do you want to go down the line and have everybody vote for one of the three choices or abstain? Either their vote is going to be no. No, yes to be the only, or yes to all three or you can abstain.” Secretary Craig then added, “That’s three different motions.” Monroe said, “Maybe we should break out whether are just talking about one spot first? What do you think about that? Verses three, that’s an easy break. If it’s all three then what are we putting on all three? Or if it’s just one then what are we putting on that one? Does that make sense?”
Heslin then read the question as, “All in favor of allowing religious displays on town property?
The vote was then taken. Voting YES were Holly Heslin, Tim Martin, Mary Shepheard, Frances Pulle, Aaron Vincent and Robin Dowding. Voting NO were Danielle Monroe and Diana Naddeo. Motion passed.
“The answer to the question is yes, we should allow it,” said Heslin, “Now I’d like to pose a second question.” “Having answered yes, should the Town of Bethel allow religious displays on P.T. Barnum Square only, as opposed to all the available town properties?”
Martin clarified the question to mean, ‘Yes on P.T. Barnum Square only, or whatever the town makes available.’ “ He continued, “I don’t want to be restricted to say, just those three, and never any other, should other ones become available.” Heslin said, “I think that’s an excellent edit, an amendment, so I’m going to state the motion.” She read the question again, “Shall the Town of Bethel allow religious displays on P.T. Barnum Square and any other available land? It was seconded by Martin, then Heslins said, “All in favor of allowing the religious displays on P.T. Barnum and/or any available other pieces of town property, all in favor?” Just then secretary Craig pointed out differences in the questions, and it then went back to discussion.
Heslin said, “I’m very pliable, and honestly, I know we’re a divided committee but I really have liked how we have, you know, had the exchange and I just want to keep it open and fluid and so I in vote everybody’s input but it did create two identical questions.”
Heslin said, “So the next step is, will those displays only be allowed on P.T. Barnum Square, or shall be allowed?” Martin suggested refining the question to read, “All in favor of restricting it to P.T. Barnum only?”
Martin said, “I make a motion to vote whether to restrict to P.T. Barnum Square only.” Vote NO: zero. Vote YES: Unanimous.
How many displays will be permitted at a time and process for
Heslin said, “The first little bubble on our flow chart here asks, How many displays will be permitted at a time?
Monroe had a suggestion, “Rather than thinking of numbers perhaps we need to think of setbacks from each other, how much space should be between, and perhaps we should think of a percentage of space on the individual piece of property.” Monroe also had a problem with only allowing one display each on the smaller pieces of property, “in terms of perceived favoritism” she said, “that’s something to think about.”
Martin brought up display size restrictions to consider.
Robin Dowding suggested an “if/and or an if/or recommendation.” She said, “No more than three on any location if the location exceeds, I don’t know, 120 square feet.” She believe that the square footage of the plot of land should be what determines how many displays are allowed there.
Monroe agreed, saying she was talking about percentages too.
Martin said it could look like a flea market if there are too many displays. “Too much clutter with a limited amount of space,” he said. Martin said he believed that with any recommendation they made to the BOS, the town would oversee it safety-wise. Martin also suggested that any percentages that are recommended are just “guidelines” because you cannot know what sizes the displays will be right now.
“The elephant in the room is the creche. Now we haven’t decided that we’re going to move it and we haven’t voted on that.” –Frances Pulle
Pulle stated, “The elephant in the room is the creche. Now we haven’t decided that we’re going to move it and we haven’t voted on that. And Tim and I, we talked about leaving the creche where it is because of safety, because of tradition, because of history, and you know, we haven’t said we’re going to move it. And we’re kind of assuming that we’re going to move the creche.” Much overlapping chatter began. Pulle continued, “We can’t really decide how many displays go in P.T. Barnum Square until we decide where we’re going to put the creche.”
Heslin said, “Can I just say Fran, that comes down to, it is one of the bubbles. We’re on ‘how many displays will be permitted at a time.’ not how will locations be decided, or all these other bubbles”
Pulle insisted once more that the creche was the elephant in the room.
Heslin replied, “As we sit here today, up until this day, the creche has been the biggest display that’s been put out for the holidays. That doesn’t mean that that will not be different next year or the year after. There might be a large display that another group would want to build and would want to display on the property. I don’t feel comfortable limiting the question to where the creche goes. Sorry”
Pulle replied, “I’m just saying that will determine everything else. We really ave to discuss that.” Heslin said, “Well, I mean, discuss it in terms of size verses instead of an actual display. Pulle said, “Safety, size, history.” Dowling said, “Completed application.” Heslin said, “Right. Insurance.”
Heslin said, “It’s my understanding that a proposal has been offered to the committee recommending that there be a percentage of open space allowed on each available town property for the display of religious displays.” Heslin then asked the committee for a suggestion of percentages or a range. Martin said size and number could dictate percentages.
Heskin said, “I think leaving it to the town to determine what the appropriate size is for Libby Triangle verses what the appropriate size is, I think that we don’t even need to get into that because you know, if we say we’re going to limit it to five feet tall, it’s not like a seven foot tall display is going to be allowed on Libby, even of we said, ‘Hey, you could do seven feet’. I don’t think we need to talk about size or physical restrictions because that’s going to be covered by Park and Rec. and the town.”
Monroe said, “My suggestion is 1/3 for displays and 2/3 for traffic and movement and open space.” Martin agreed, and said, “Just as a broad guideline to the town.
Pulle said, “I can’t really say yes or no without knowing the size or weight, you know, we have a lot of events around the creche, around the Christmas tree, winter festivities which I think takes place over three days.” Pulle continued, “We don’t know how many people applied for, what do you call it, a permit.”
Danielle Monroe made a motion, (which was later seconded by Mary Shepheard) and said, “I move that we make a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen that on each individual space 1/3 is dedicated for displays and 2/3 are left open.” Vote YES – Holly Heslin, Tim Martin, Mary Shepheard, Aaron Vincent, Robin Dowding, Danielle Monroe and Diana Naddeo. Abstain – Frances Pulle. “Until we get more information,” said Pulle.
Heslin referred to the chart bubbles once more and said, “Since we didn’t deal with number of displays permitted we dealt with square footage or percentage of property.” She said, “I think of we leave it up to the town officials to determine how many displays will be within the guidelines…” She was cut off by Monroe saying, “But that’s not what that bubble says. That bubble says, if you receive more, rather than in terms of numbers let’s go back to percentages since that’s what we’re recommending. If the town were to receive applications for a number of displays that would exceed the percentage that we allotted, I know that was rather convoluted, was I clear?” Martin said, “Is the town going to run out of space.” “That’s a much clearer way of saying that,” said Monroe. “If the town runs out of space how will the selection process go? What gets displayed?
“Now we’re dealing in hypotheticals” said Pulle. “It’s all hypothetical,” said Martin, and then Heslin.
Martin said, “This is just discussion at this point. I feel like sometimes you have to wait until you have to cross a bridge to figure it out. That, you know, there are some hypotheticals if you get extreme. I don’t know if we’ll get that many, and if we do, then the town’s going to have to make the decision there, I don’t know how to answer that question.”
Heslin brought up some of the things previously discussed: first come, first application, first choice. Or a completed application, having insurance, the permit, and falls within the guidelines.
Mary Shepheard suggested a lottery system. She said, “Danielle made a good point, what if two people show up at the same time for the first come, first serve, and they have an insurance binder and they have the completed application, how do you determine from there? What about having a time frame as to when you can apply? And you’d be doing a lottery instead of a first come, first serve? Maybe pulling numbers out of a hat, you know, so that way it makes it fair for everyone who has a display.“
Monroe said, “I like that…but having had kids in the schools, and having been through the process of having to register them for camps and all the other things, the first come, first serve thing is obnoxious for working parents or people with other obligations, it’s very restrictive.“
Dowding replied, “What I do like about first come, first serve, is because you are offering multiple areas and possibly multiple displays in these multiple areas. First come, first serve unless you’ve got, you know, fifteen people showing up with completed applications, insurance binders, at one timne, that I don’t believe is going to happen.”
Heslin believed that once a person has the completed application filled out properly with the necessary insurance etc. then Park & Rec can ensure safety aspects and the town officials can decide placement.
Heslin said, “My suggestion to this committee is that we adopt some sort of first come, first serve, and lottery if more come, than a particular space. Let the Park & Rec figure it out.”
“They can put things in a lottery,” Monroe said. And regarding first come, first serve she said, “My personal feeling is I don’t think that’s fair so I don’t personally like that policy.” She continued, “You know, there are hiccups that can happen when you’re getting insurance that aren’t necessarily the fault of the person who’s applying. I mean there’s a million reasons why, from a personal standpoint, I don’t like policies like that.”
Pulle suggested a waiting period, for all the applications to come in. “Then when we reach the cut off point we hand it to Parks & Recreation, and then they decide. So there wouldn’t be any first come, first serve, or any need of a lottery, because those other groups have applied.” Pulle said. Monroe disagreed and said, “Well no, if you have more applications than the space can hold, then you need tp determine who is not going to display.” Pulle replied, “I think that’s too hypothetical.”
In the event that they did get more applications than display space, Martin said, “I think everybody agrees that we are trying to be as accommodative as possible. So I would hope that should that ever happen, which may never, but it may, but we can still talk about what of it did. I would hope that the first thing would be that the town would see, since there’s clearly an abundance of interest at that point, if there’s any additional space available, because even a lottery is going to exclude somebody that wants to display. My recommendation to the town would be, we’ve never had this issue, but thinking in case we do, at that time, I would hope that the town would try to find additional spots.” He said, “The first thing is to try and be accommodating.”
Monroe replied, “Well respectfully, Matt did come in and say that, actually on multiple occasions, that these are the only three pieces of property allowed.” She said, “The idea of just magically finding more space if we have an influx, that makes me uncomfortable because I’m just not sure that’s going to happen, that more space will be allocated.”
“I think we have to keep in mind that life isn’t fair. The word ‘no’ exists. It’s just a fact. And I think the guidelines that we’re staging are trying to be inclusive is fair as can be.” –Robin Dowding
Dowling said, “I think we have to keep in mind that life isn’t fair. The word ‘no’ exists. It’s just a fact. And I think the guidelines that we’re staging are trying to be inclusive is fair as can be. The fact of the matter is there could be a situation where it can’t happen. Somebody is going to have to hear ‘no’, they’re not going to think it’s fair, and that’s unfortunately life.”
Heslin brought up a point, “Does it make sense, I’m throwing this out there for the committee to consider, in addition to first come, first serve, does it make sense to all, for the selectmen instill in the policy consideration to displays like the creche, that have been there year after year after year, okay, does it make sense for the policy to include the idea about tradition and public events centered around a particular display? Is it something that this committee is open to considering? Pulle said, “Yes we should.”
Monroe replied, “So my understanding of what Mr. Lawlor gave to us, those are things that we are not supposed to be taking into consideration.” Martin said, “I disagree. I think the ruling last week… specifically took tradition and precedent into place. And again, legal discussion. Ultimately … I think you’re asking some people should favoritism being given to precedence.” Martin talked about some spots not losing a spot while others do a lottery. “It’s going to come down to voting,” Martin said.
Heslin said, “I look at something that’s there, should stay, and if it moves, then it becomes open. I don’t know whether not not that’s right for the holiday display, but I certainly do value that as an option. I do see the importance of precedence.”
“I said last week and I’ll say it again, that if we have to move the creche, it’s going to cause a lot of people to be angry and upset.” –Frances Pulle
Pulle stated, “I said last week and I’ll say it again, that if we have to move the creche, it’s going to cause a lot of people to be angry and upset. And that is exactly what Justice Alito said in the ruling, that taking down that cross, which was a World War I memorial for veterans, would cause a turmoil in the community, and it’s not what the First Amendment was advocating. And it was perfect because that’s exactly what I was saying. If you move it we’re going to get s lot of people who are angry.”
“I think the thesis of her comment is majority verses minority, right?” said Heslin. “That’s exactly what the justice said,” Pulle stated, “that if they were to remove the cross people would be very upset and angry. It exactly echoed what I said. It had nothing to do with the Lemon Test or anything.” Pulle said, “I read the decision and the cross is not even a religious symbol anymore... it’s secular.”
Heslin said, “As a committee it’s not our job to interpret the laws, that’s the town attorney’s job and so we’ll leave it to him I don’t think we need to take into consideration what the status of the present law is with respect to our recommendation, because if we recommend something that’s not lawful it’s not going to be adopted.” Heslin said, “I’d like to take the legal aspects off the table and just talk about procedurally what we need to do.”
Diana Naddeo stated, “Piggy-backing off of what you ended with, I think that the comments that have been made at the past few meetings about what the majority would feel and how, from what I am hearing, that there would be anger to the decision? So I’m just going to offer a different viewpoint which is, just because there’s higher numbers doesn’t mean the feeling can’t be the same of how it would be for a minority to feel. How would people, who, whether it’s fairness, discomfort, whether it’s just wanting to create, you know, generally in our community, a more equal playing field, or a more level playing field. I think numbers don’t matter, that those are neighborly issues. I mean for myself, that I very much want to be respectful of.”
“I am still in favor of a lottery system,” said Monroe, saying that the town lawyer said there is ‘no precedence and no favoritism allowed,” however you want to look at it, Monroe said.
Heslin stated, “I think that the town first selectmen are looking for what they’ve been doing, is broken. It didn’t work and it failed our town miserably, and so they’re looking for as new direction to avoid that happening.” Heslin continued, “So that being said, the town attorney does say that ‘use of town property should be decided on, first and foremost, the fairness to all parties, no one party, because of what it stands for or how long it has been in existence, should have priorities over others.’ So I think that goes toward where, which parcel. Every single display has to be treated fairly in terms of whether or not it gets a spot in Bethel.”
“People are going t be upset no matter what they decide, and I think we just have to come to terms with that,” Monroe stated, “There’s nothing we can do about it… so again I will say that a lottery is the fairest way. That would be my suggestion. That would be my personal suggestion to the Board of Selectmen. Employ a lottery system that takes into account the size of the displays, then their needs from a safety and square footage consideration. Good luck to them on that.”
Pulle commented, “To something that Diana said, there is something called ‘tyranny of the majority‘ and so we have to recognize that we have two conflicting principles. We have ‘majority rules’ which is part of our system, but we also want to protect the minority.” Pulle read part of attorney Lawlor’s words, ‘To my knowledge there is no law for what you ask, however precedence should not matter especially if it was incorrect to start out with.’ And I don’t know where it was incorrect,” Pulle said, “it wasn’t like other groups were going to get on up until, I don’t know, maybe this year? And then we said you can’t come on to the square.”
Pulle read more of Lawlor’s words, ‘If you have mistakenly allowed a use for several years.’ “Where is the mistake? Pulle said, “Why would you allow that to take precedent over others in the future?” she asked. “Now I asked a few people who were Jewish, at the [Nativity] dedication, Pulle said, “I said ‘How come you don’t have a Menorah?’ and they said, ‘We just haven’t done it.’ like they were banned from doing it... I don’t see how you can say it was wrong to begin with. The first I ever heard of an atheist display wanting to be erected in the square was this past season.”
Monroe said, “I think you’re misinterpreting his words. He’s not saying it was done incorrectly. He’s saying IF a thing is done incorrectly for a period of time, that’s not a basis for continuing to do it incorrectly n the future.”… “He’s answering the question about grandfathering it in.” Pulle replied, “If you want to take it that way, that’s good. You can take it two different ways.”
Martin said, “I don’t think precedent for the sake of precedent is ever a good idea. ‘We’ve always done this so this is the way we should do this.’ … Matt did ask us to take into consideration the town response, with the understanding that there’s a lot of people that are not going to be happy. I do think that the majority of the people that appreciate the creche being there would be upset, whatever you want to call it, should it be moved, especially if it’s just being moved for the sake of randomness. And I do think we can be fair and include other displays which hopefully makes the people feel more welcome. And they may not be completely satisfied that they didn’t get that spot, but it’s not fair, but hopefully it will move a little closer to making them feel a little bit more included. And again, nobody’s going to walk away 100% thrilled, and I recognoze that, and I’m okay with that.”
Martin continued, “But I do think with Matt saying take that into consideration, the second that creche moves to somewhere else, I do think there’s going to be a large group of people upset with it, especially if it’s just because of a lottery, because you know what? We picked the name out of a hat because somebody wanted to make sure they had a chance at that spot. Being on the square or being included is enough.“
“I also think that precedent, you know, also can be meant to be taken into consideration in a culture, Sometimes something is done just because traditionally it’s how it’s been done and that tradition means things to different people and do think you have to give some consideration to that,” Martin said, “The lottery basically says, ‘To hell with tradition, throw it out the window, it doesn’t matter that people are going to be upset, we’re going to do this totally randomly because that’s the way we want to do it,’ and that’s the problem I have with the lottery., and I think we can be fair and inclusive but at the same tine respect the culture and traditions people have come to respect. And that’s my two cents. I don’t have anything to add to this.”
Diana Naddeo responded to Martin, “I don’t want you to feel put on the spot but it has been in both of your comments the past two weeks that talk of moving the creche is coming from a mean place or random, and as a psychologist I’m in the field of where that multi-cultural movement has done tremendous research in looking at, starting to, I’ve used that phrase before, making more people feel involved. And so I just think that by saying it’s random, minimizes what the value is in a lottery, in this whole discussion. By saying it’s mean, it makes it seem like it’s a personal decision, like personal in a sense of oh like the school yard stuff. I don’t like that so I don’t want it. So what it comes down to for me is I am dedicated to making the world a better place, and of we’re really having to talk about this thing being random or mean, I think before we can make any more decisions, like have some handouts on diversity and what inclusiveness really means, which is not just saying, ‘Okay you can have a part of this but we still stand where we are.’ That defeats the whole purpose of what inclusiveness is, which I think the public speaker said.”
“I think before we can make any more decisions, like have some handouts on diversity and what inclusiveness really means, which is not just saying, ‘Okay you can have a part of this but we still stand where we are.’ That defeats the whole purpose of what inclusiveness is, which I think the public speaker said.” –Diana Naddeo
Martin said, “Well first of all for the randomness I just meant for the lottery, randomly assigned spots.” Naddeo said, “You said that the decision to move the creche seemed random.” Martin replied, No, no, no. By random I’ll clarify that I did mean that having the creche here (motioned with his hands), and the next year it’s here, and the next year it’s there, just because we drew a name out of a hat, basically by going in that direction and trying t be inclusive and doing that lottery is also saying, ‘We’re not involved in that tradition that so many people find important because we want to be accommodating.’ I’m trying to do both. I’m trying to be inclusive but at the same time respect the traditions that are important to a lot of people.”
“I just don’t see a problem with the lottery,” said Mary Shepheard, “I think it affords fairness to everyone.”
“I just don’t see a problem with the lottery, I think it affords fairness to everyone.” –Mary Shepheard,
Martin said, “If we had more than [displays] is going to fit, then someone is going to be excluded, that it is going to just randomly be done by lottery, which would mean there is a reasonable, or a possible chance, the creche would just not go up at all.” … “Voting in favor of this is voting for the possibility that the creche may not be up, but my taking consideration, and the town response, that’s something that would make a large number of people, even those that are indifferent, see that we are going to allow multiple other things and not allow the creche, given by chance, by lottery, by whatever, is my problem with the lottery system. I think it’s too simple, it completely whitewashes all culture and tradition, in exchange for, and again, this is only going to happen if we get too many applicants? I do think at that point somebody that wants to see the creche not there is almost tempted to encourage people to put in as many applications as possible to drive it into a lottery, and to do that every year until it doesn’t happen. And people will do that, and that’s a problem. A random policy that completely excludes, call it precedent, call it culture, call it tradition, call it whatever you want to call it, I have an issue with that and that’s just my feeling.”
“I do think at that point somebody that wants to see the creche not there is almost tempted to encourage people to put in as many applications as possible to drive it into a lottery, and to do that every year until it doesn’t happen. And people will do that, and that’s a problem.” –Tim Martin
Monroe said to Martin, “I know because you keep saying this and Diana mentioned it a moment ago, that you feel this is an attack on the creche … I would like to present the other side. If there is a policy in place that shows that equal consideration will be given to anyone in our community to out up a display I think it is the opposite effect to what you are saying. When I listened to the speaker who came in to speak tonight, he said, and I identify with a lot of what he said, not everything but a lot of it, that it hasn’t seemed inclusive ever in his experience here. It hasn’t seemed inclusive in my experience ever. There’s a policy that shows that not only is it inclusive but it will protect the rights of all, actually is I think enough, for a lot of people who will just feel like, okay, it is fair, it is equitable. I don’t need to make a point because a policy exists.”
Heslin talked about the public speaker, and said, “What I don’t agree with is characterizing that, he said it hasn’t been inclusive, that the creche was there and he was insulted by it and he felt alienated. He said, ‘I don’t want to be dramatic but my mouth just dropped that there was a creche on the property.’ That doesn’t mean that the policy was exclusive, that nobody else can put anything up.” … “I get that there may be a display that I find, that I go, ‘What?’ That doesn’t mean thatI’m looking at the town like, “What the heck?”
“When I saw it [creche] I had a very similar response. ‘Why is that on town property?’ That’s not, that looks to me, I’m telling you right or wrong, what I felt when I moved here, my first winter when it went up. I felt excluded, like the town was indeed endorsing that it was a problem.“ –Danielle Monroe
Monroe also stated, “When I saw it [creche] I had a very similar response. ‘Why is that on town property?’ That’s not, that looks to me, I’m telling you right or wrong, what I felt when I moved here, my first winter when it went up. I felt excluded, like the town was indeed endorsing that it was a problem. Now I also know that’s problematic because there’s no policy in place in order to make sure that other people had the right, and I didn’t pull a display together. I did support the display [atheist] that went up here, I was excited and enthusiastic to do so. because I thought it was long overdue for somebody to take the reigns and I wasn’t prepared to do it myself, I was enthusiastic to support somebody else.” … “But I’m saying that having a policy in place that says. ‘Yes, we actually as a town do not endorse one thing. We actually as a town are going to have a policy in place that demands that everyone who wants to have a voice has the opportunity to potentially have a voice. That fits soooo much better with me and I think with the larger percentage of the population than people realize.”
Heslin said, “We have to understand that the town is not endorsing anything.”
How will locations be assigned:
Danielle Monroe made a motion, which was seconded by Aaron Vincent to recommend to the Board of Selectmen that if the applications exceed the
square footage of town property available then all displays would be entered into a lottery. Discussion ensued.
Danielle Monroe made a motion, which was seconded by Aaron Vincent to amend her original motion to include, if a display was not approved due to the lottery then it would be first on the list for the next year. Discussion
ensued. Vote YES -Danielle Monroe, Diana Naddeo, Mary Shepheard and Aaron Vincent. Vote NO – Holly Heslin, Tim Martin, Frances Pulle and Robin
Dowding. Motion failed due to tie.
Tim Martin made a motion, which was seconded by Frances Pulle to
recommend to the Board of Selectmen that the pre existing displays remain
in their original spot of town approved land and the remaining areas are
offered to new applications by lottery. Discussion ensued.
Tim Martin made a motion, which was seconded by Frances Pulle to amend his original motion to include, the pre existing displays have to complete the application and follow the application process. Discussion ensued. Vote YES — Tim Martin, Holly Heslin, Frances Pulle and Robin Dowding. Vote NO —Danielle Monroe, Diana Naddeo, Aaron Vincent. Abstain – Mary Shepheard. Motion passed.
Consideration of extension for meeting dates:
Discussion ensued. The commission agreed that they have completed their
assignment and will give recommendations to the Board of Selectmen.
Tim Martin made a motion, which was seconded by Frances Pulle to adjourn the meeting at 8: 36 p.m. Vote, all in favor, motion approved unanimously.
(Bethel Advocate was able to obtain the documents from the July 27, 2019 meeting.)
Memo from Town Attorney Martin Lawlor to Committee:
Memo to Religious Display Committee
I have been asked to inform briefly inform the Committee some of the guidelines which have been the subject matter of litigation that have been used for religious displays on government owned property and which I have referred to in the past. I am not discussing school properties at this time but the Town of Bethel’s municipal properties.
There are generally two types of municipal property which makes a difference as to what religious display or non-religious display (atheistic) can be allowed and what should not be allowed.
If the property is the seat of the government i.e. the Municipal Center, police station or a court house, etc., there should be no types of religious displays or mixed religious displays allowed. This is where it is abundantly clear that a particular religion is being promoted even if combined with several other religions. Examples would be a crèche and/or a religious icon, cross, a menorah or for that matter symbols or documentation extolling that there is no God or a criticism of religion whether the religion is specified or not (this category generally will be referred to hereafter as atheistic in form). There is a need to avoid the appearance that the government is sponsoring or endorsing such a religion or supporting atheists’ beliefs at such positions/seats of government.
If the property is Town owned but not a seat of government, i.e. PT Barnum Square, misc. park lands, other Town squares, etc., such religious displays which would appear to promote or sponsor a particular religion or atheistic beliefs can be allowed provided that the items placed on the property are done so by private parties with no government aid and it is made clear that the Town did not place or is endorsing the display. In fact, it has been suggested that a disclaimer be posted regarding the same by the Town but I believe a posted memorandum that the display was placed by named private parties would be sufficient to indicate that this was not a project of the Town’s government.
There is a further and murkier delineation when the religious display is mixed with general holiday promotions i.e. lighting, reindeer, snowman, snow flakes and even Christmas trees which the courts have indicated are non-religious in nature. At the seat of government, this mixture could be acceptable if the non-religious displays outweighs the religious effect of the religious display. If one would still view the display as an endorsement of a religious message, the display should not be allowed.
On the other hand, if there is a religious display mixed in with general holiday promotions on government property not considered a seat of the government, there is no disclaimer required by the government if privately placed. In addition, the Town itself could place such a display itself at the seat of government property or the government property that is not considered the seat but in both instances, but in both the first instance and the latter two instances, the holiday decorations must outweigh the religious effect of the display.
Generally holiday promotional displays can be placed at the seats of government and on government property that are not the seats of government.
My last comment is that should the Committee decide to formulate and recommend guidelines and policies for certain displays to be allowed on Town properties to the Board of Selectmen, that it not only be done in compliance with the guidelines outlined above but that it also be clear that these displays will be open to and available to all religious and non-religious sects. It will be considered a form of free speech to promote your religious beliefs in the form of displays or banners which should be open and available to all.
Martin J. Lawlor, Jr.
Bethel Town Counsel
May 11, 2019
Responses from questions to Martin Lawlor (all caps are Attorney Lawlor’s comments just as he wrote them, and questions shown in regular typeface are questions from the committee to him):
Discussion of open areas for displays: First Selectman Knickerbocker led the Committee in discussing several key points and forming a list of questions to be answered by Town Counsel and Planning & Zoning:
I WILL BE UNABLE TO ATTEND YOUR NEXT MEETING ON JUNE 20TH BUT WILL ATTEMPT TO OFFER SOME GUIDANCE IN REGARDS TO THE QUESTIONS POSED. MOST OF THE QUESTIONS THAT ARE BEING ASKED ARE NOT OF A LEGAL NATURE AND MORE IN LINE WITH WHAT I BELIEVED THE COMMITTEE WAS TO DISCUSS AND FORMULATE THAT BEING RECOMMENDATIONS AND PROCEDURES THAT THE BOARD OF SELECTMAN COULD LOOK TO AS GUIDANCE IN MAKINGDECISIONS REGARDING DISPLAYS AND SIGNAGE ON TOWN PROPERTY.
What areas of land are available
THIS IS BETTER ANSWERED BY THE BOARD OF SELECTMEN. IN THE PAST, SEVERAL OF THE TOWN GREENS WERE USED, SUCH AS PT. BARNUM SQUARE; GREENWOOD AND DIAMOND AVENUE; MAIN STREET AND CHESTNUT STREET TO NAME A FEW.
What is constitutional in deciding what /how displays will be chosen and not necessarily fair
TO MY KNOWLEDGE, I AM NOT AWARE OF ANY CONSTITUTIONAL COURT DECISIONS AS TO HOW DISPLAYS ARE TO BE CHOSEN FAIRLY FOR WHICH GUIDANCE MAY BE HAD. I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT THIS WAS ONE OF THE ITEMS THAT THE COMMITTEE WAS TO DISCUSS AND MAKE A RECOMMENDATION TO THE BOARD OF SELECTMAN.SEE MY PREVIOUS MEMO WHICH I PROVIDED AND HAVE ATTACHED HERETO FOR THE COMMITTEE’S USE IN MAKING DECISIONS ON WHAT CAN BE DISPLAYED AND WHERE.
Define the Lemon Test
THE DECISION OF THE THE LEMON CASE IS NOT APPLICABLE TO WHAT THE COMMITTEE’S CHARGE IS AND WHAT IS TO BE DISCUSSED. THE LEMON CASE IS APPLICABLE AS TO STATUTES AND/OR LEGISLATIVE ACTION IN THE FORM OF LAWS OR ORDINANCES. CURRENTLY, THERE IS NO STATUTE, LAW OR ORDINANCE WHICH IS WITHIN THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE COMMITTEE. IT WOULD BE A RATHER LARGE STRETCH TO ATTEMPT TO HAVE WHAT THE COMMITTEE IS DEALING WITH TO FALL IN LINE WITH THE LEMON DECISION.THE BASIS OF THE LEMON TEST IS:1. GOVERNMENT’S ACTION MUST HAVE A SECULAR PURPOSE.2. GOVERNMENT’S ACTION MUST NEITHER ADVANCE NOR PROHIBIT RELIGION.3. GOVERNMENT’S ACTION MUST NOT RESULT IN THE EXCESSIVE GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT WITH RELIGION.
The Lemon Test – Who makes the decision
NORMALLY THE INITIAL DECISION IS MADE BY THE GOVERNING BODY. IN THE CONFINES OF THE COMMITTEE’S CHARGE, THIS ‘LEMON TEST’ IS NOT APPLICABLE SINCE IT APPLIES TO LEGISLATIVE ACTION OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE FORM OF STATUTES, LAWS AND/OR ORDINANCES WHICH IS NOT BEING DEALT WITH HERE.
How do we determine / objective decision – is there a standard or will criteria be made?
I BELIEVE I ANSWERED THIS WITH MY PREVIOUS MEMO WHICH I HAVE ATTACHED AGAIN WHICH PERTAINS TO DIFFERENT COURT DECISIONS THAT HAVE BEEN DECIDED.
Why does the majority have to conform to the minority?
YOU WOULD HAVE TO ASK THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR A SPECIFIC ANSWER. IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF CONFORMITY, IT IS MY RATHER SIMPLISTIC RESPONSE THAT ONE OF THE PRINCIPLES OF WHAT OUR CONSTITUTION STANDS FOR IS THAT THE MINORITY HAS THE SAME OR SIMILAR RIGHTS AS THE MAJORITY. ONE OF THE REASONS EACH STATE HAS TWO FEDERAL SENATORS DESPITE WHAT THE POPULATION IS. THE MINORITY HAS RIGHTS AS WELL. BETHEL ITSELF HAS MINORITY RIGHTS BUILT INTO OUR CHARTER.
Can a display be reserved based on history or grandfathered to a spot based on needs – power, safety ect.) Does the precedent matter
TO MY KNOWLEDGE THERE IS NO COURT DECISION REGARDING WHAT YOU ASK. HOWEVER, PRECEDENT SHOULD NOT MATTER, ESPECIALLY IF IT WAS INCORRECT TO START OUT WITH. IF YOU HAVE MISTAKENLY ALLOWED A USE FOR SEVERAL YEARS WHY WOULD YOU ALLOW THAT USE TO TAKE PRECEDENCE OVER OTHERS IN THE FUTURE?USE OF TOWN PROPERTY SHOULD BE DECIDED ON FIRST AND FOREMOST THE BASIS OF FAIRNESS TO ALL OF THE PARTIES. NO ONE PARTY BECAUSE OF WHAT IT STANDS FOR OR HOW LONG IT HAS BEEN IN EXISTENCE SHOULD HAVE PRIORITIES OVER OTHERS.I ALSO BELIEVED THE ISSUE OF WHO HAS PRIORITY AS TO THE SITE BOTH LOCATION AND TIME WAS SOMETHING THAT THE COMMITTEE WAS TO DISCUSS AND RECOMMEND A PROCEDURE TO THE BOARD OF SELECTMEN TO MAKE SUCH DECISIONS.
Time limit – what is the appropriate time limit for each display. What times of the year do we open the area for displays?
TO MY KNOWLEDGE THERE IS NO COURT DECISION REGARDING WHAT YOU ASK. LIKE MY PREVIOUS RESPONSE, THESE ITEMS, TIME LIMIT AND TIMES FOR DISPLAY DURING THE YEAR WERE ITEMS THE COMMITTEE WERE TO DISCUSS AND RECOMMEND TO THE BOARD OF SELECTMEN AND A POTENTIAL PROCEDURE THE BOARD OF SELECTMEN COULD FOLLOW AND RELY ON.
Process for deciding the limit of approved spots on a location.
AGAIN, TO MY KNOWLEDGE THERE IS NO COURT DECISION REGARDING WHAT YOU ASK. THESE ITEMS HAVE TO DO WITH RECOMMENDATIONS AND PROCEDURES TO BE MADE TO THE BOARD OF SELECTMEN BY THE COMMITTEE.
Chart created by committee member Danielle Monroe:
All three of the above documents were NOT provided to the public and NOT included in, or referenced to, in the meeting minutes of the June 27, 2019 Religious Holiday Display Committee meeting.
The Bethel Board of Selectman Meeting Regarding a Final Decision on Allowing the Nativity and Other Displays is Scheduled for Aug. 6th
The meeting agenda has been posted on the Town of Bethel website for the Bethel Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting announcing that the meeting will take place at 7:00 p.m. on August 6, 2019, in Room A of the CJH Municipal Center, topic to include religious displays (unless they make changes from now until 24 hours before the meeting, check back). See agenda below.
A final decision from the BOS is expected regarding religious displays on public property in Bethel CT.
This includes whether or not the Nativity, or any other religious or non-religious displays, will be allowed to remain on display in Bethel’s P.T. Barnum Square, or anywhere at all on public property. Come make your opinion known. Public comments will be allowed.
VIEW AGENDA BELOW: