The Case of the Missing Nativity Display is Solved. It is Back in P.T. Barnum Square!

Report by Paula Antolini, November 28, 2021, 4:36PM EDT

If you passed by P.T. Barnum Square in the recent hours today, you are not seeing a mirage. The Nativity display is back in the Square! Apparently it was only placed at the Bethel United Methodist church temporarily, a few days earlier, getting ready to be moved to the Square. It however, appeared to be permanent to passers-by since it was facing the street and was there during the WinterFest Friday event, that was subsequently cancelled at the last minute, then displayed in the driveway at the Saturday event too.

We heard back from Tim Martin, who we previously contacted, who is the person handling the Nativity and was involved in the rebuilding of the new display too, who clarified the situation and said, “After removing it from storage prior to the holiday, we temporarily displayed at the church so it could be enjoyed by the community during the Thanksgiving holiday. We then followed the holiday display rules when moving it to the square. I found the process very clear and transparent and the town officials were great to work with when applying for the permit.”

According to Town of Bethel rules, the display is not allowed to be placed in the Square until the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This is due to safety issues and space for the tree lighting. Same rules for sign or banner displays, which we still do not know what is planned regarding that.

It now appears as if it is an “all or nothing” situation regarding displays. If the Town of Bethel is following all Constitutional rules regarding “no religious displays on public property” we are wondering how this works.

According to Freedom Forum Institute, “The question of whether a religious display on government property is constitutional requires a multi-step analysis. First, one should ask, who is funding and erecting the display? If a private group wants to place a religious monument on public property, then a free-expression analysis should be conducted, looking into such things as the type of forum in question. If, as in this case, a government entity is attempting to post a religious document, then a separate line of questions must be raised.

Religious displays on public property can be legal, but they must pass constitutional muster by not violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which requires government “neutrality” towards religion. In deciding whether or not particular religious displays violate the establishment clause, courts look to two Supreme Court tests, the Lemon test and the endorsement test.

“The Lemon test poses three questions: 1) Did the state actor have a secular purpose in posting the documents; 2) was the primary effect of the action to advance or promote religion; and 3) was there excessive entanglement between government and religion in the given activity? The government conduct must survive all three of these prongs if the action is to survive constitutional muster.”

Read more here.


There is also the issue of the formerly elaborate ceremony, with singers and speeches, Santa’s arrival in the Square, and children sitting on his lap, etc. which has taken place for years in the Square, now being changed forever in that the Nativity is not allowed to be placed in the Square BEFORE the tree lighting ceremony on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The banners or signs are not allowed either, ahead of the tree lighting. The Town is claiming safety reasons and space for attendees for the ruling. Santa now does a “drive by” and lands at the Bethel Municipal Center.

So, “safety” is the reason to separate the Nativity and other displays from the actual tree lighting event when “safety” was never an issue with these same items for other years? In fact, remember when the banner and sign displays were controversial and fought over, and the Town of Bethel officials made sure the signs and banners WERE on display on the night of the event, and the Nativity too?..,.despite it seeming like it crowded the Square even more? Confusing. While we understand how the Town officials are trying to please everyone, it appears to be an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas, to some.

Some residents have commented why did they ruin something so beautiful.