Report by Paula Antolini
November 20, 2018, 1:59PM EDT
Controversy Surrounds the Placement of the New Nativity in Bethel CT
The dedication ceremony for the new Nativity display in P.T. Barnum Square in Bethel, CT, just took place on Saturday, November 17, 2018, but apparently there is controversy over its placement that might have started much earlier.
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.”
In another letter dated November 28, 2018 to Martin Lawlor, Blackman stated, “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.
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.
We contacted Nick Fish, the President of the American Atheists group, who has not returned our call.
First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker was out of town and said he would contact us after he returned but so far we have not heard back. Dionne Craig, administrator for Knickerbocker’s office, claimed she had no letters or applications that were sent to the First Selectman regarding the displays at PT Barnum Square.
The Parks and Recreation Department Secretary Janice Beote said the P&R director Eileen T. Earle, was out of town and so was the assistant director Rachael McGrath. She knew nothing about applications, she said. However, a short while later we were called by Dionne Craig who said she had an application for us to pick up, which was one single application from James Naddeo.
The application from James Naddeo is dated 11-5-18 asking for a Non-Denominational Holiday Display Ceremony to take place at 10:30 a.m.on 11-18-18. As far as we know the ceremony did not take place but we have no further information as of today.
As it stands now we do not know if this is the same individual who originally contacted the American Atheists group or if it was another individual, since this complaint seems to go back over a year.
There is a Special Meeting being held tonight to discuss this topic:
NOTICE OF SPECIAL MEETING for Tuesday, November 20, 2018 at 4:30 p.m., CJH Municipal Center—Meeting Room ” A”, “Consideration of Policy for Displays at P. T. Barnum Square.”Public input will be allowed.
Residents on both sides of the issue have voiced their opinions in a heated confrontation on social media for the last few days. Tonight’s meeting should tell us a bit more.
UPDATE 11-20-18, 4:30PM:
According to a sign on the Bethel Municipal Center door, TONIGHT’S MEETING CANCELED: “Consideration of Policy for Displays at P. T. Barnum Square” that was set for 4:30pm) … meeting is rescheduled to Monday, November 26, 2018 at 6:00 p.m.
Sign on door tonight (says 4pm meeting is canceled but meeting was set for 4:30pm):
Original Meeting Agenda for 4:30: