For nearly two years now, the city of Bethel, Connecticut has been debating whether or not to allow holiday displays on government land. The easy answer would be “no.” But they’ve repeatedly bungled this issue.
They may have finally fixed the problem.
The controversy began in October of 2017, when officials put a Nativity scene outside the municipal building. An atheist asked to put up his own display but was told he needed to fill out a formal application… unlike Christians. An attorney for American Atheists sent a warning to the city.
By 2018, the city required everyone to fill out an application. (Success! Equality!) But because there wasn’t enough space to accommodate everyone who wanted a display, local leaders said they would allow just one. It would go to whoever turned in an application first.
But before they even made that announcement, a local newspaper published a piece saying the town had already approved a Nativity scene.
American Atheists sent another letter to the city threatening a lawsuit… but the city soon caved and permitted an atheist banner. They averted the lawsuit, but the issue of how to handle displays fairly for everyone had not been resolved.
In July, they decided they would have a lottery for everyone except atheists and Christians. American Atheists wasn’t satisfied getting special treatment and they argued against that policy because, unlike the Christians who put up Nativity scenes, they want everyone treated fairly.
That brings us to last night.
The Board of Selectmen decided they would permit all displays this year… and if there were more applications than spaces, they would hold a lottery for everyone. It’s finally treating everybody equally, and there may very well be a scenario where a Satanic display gets chosen while the Nativity scene gets left out.
… First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said the town could not legally give special treatment to certain displays. Nor can the town dictate what messages can be on the displays, he said.
“There is no in between,” he said. “There is no middle ground. There is no third option. It’s either ‘no’ or it’s ‘yes.’”
Unlike the committee’s proposed policy, the latest rules would put all applications through a lottery if there is not enough space for all displays.
The policy allows holiday displays on P.T. Barnum Square between the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and Jan. 7. Only Bethel residents or organizations are permitted to apply between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1. The area reserved for the display must not exceed one-third of the total square footage of the square. Applicants also must have insurance and could be rejected for public safety concerns.
Beautiful. Now the fun begins. I would encourage every atheist, Satanic, Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian groups in the community to have local members fill out the application and see what happens.
This is what the Selectmen wanted, so give them the displays they crave.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)