Strap in for this one. It’s a doozy.
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.
While a Facebook commenter actually suggested the manger would be placed outside of a church, American Atheists noted that the plan changed — and the display would go up on city property — after a “30 sec[ond] conversation with [First Selectman] Matthew Knickerbocker.”
That’s all it took. A quick conversation. What about the atheist display? The resident was told to fill out a formal application. AA attorney Geoffrey T. Blackwell told the city that this kind of disparate treatment could be grounds for a lawsuit. The town had to treat all residents equally.
So what’s happening this year? In theory, everybody has to fill out an application. (Success!) That’s what the Board of Selectmen said at a meeting on Tuesday night. Kind of. According to the minutes of that meeting, there wasn’t enough space to accommodate everyone who wanted a display, so the officials were only going to allow one display for now.
First Selectman Knickerbocker stated that due to concerns with the limited space [the Board] would accept the first completed application they received and acknowledging [sic] the other request he would like to establish a Display Policy Committee after the first of the year and formalize a written display policy for the future.
Ah. So all the atheists had to do was get that application in immediately and…Wait.
That meeting occurred at 6:30pm on Tuesday night. That agenda item was therefore approved sometime after that.
It just so happens that a local newspaper published a piece an hour before the meeting indicating that the town had already approved a Nativity scene… and that First Selectman Knickerbocker would be speaking at the event.
… These details could not have been known or confirmed at the time of publication if the application to even install the nativity scene in the first place had yet to be approved.
To reiterate, it appears that well before the Special Meeting of the Board of Selectmen took place, First Selectman Knickerbocker agreed to participate in the nativity scene event and arrangements were made to close off one side of P.T. Barnum Square. Then, at the Special Meeting, the Board of Selectmen — and Mr. Knickerbocker in particular — decided to “accept” the application for the nativity scene but deny the remaining applications “due to concerns with the limited space.”
Based on this information, it appears that the Parks and Recreation Department continue to subject holiday displays to different criteria and procedures based on the religious viewpoint of the proposed displays. Such disparate treatment would constitute viewpoint discrimination in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment…
American Atheists is now calling for approval of that display to be rescinded. There’s no reason a Nativity scene should go up on city property when all other displays are blocked. If the officials can’t come up with a policy that treats all displays equally, they shouldn’t be in the business or erecting holiday displays.
“The holiday season is for everyone, not just Christians,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, “The Constitution is clear that the government cannot use religion to abridge a person’s rights, yet the Town of Bethel appears to be doing just that.”
AA did not say a lawsuit would be forthcoming, but the paper trail against this town is growing larger and larger. At some point it’s bound to catch up with them.
(Image via Shutterstock)