VERGENNES — Prompted by a citizen question, Vergennes aldermen on Tuesday discussed whether to continue to allow a large Christian nativity scene to be displayed on the city green during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Eventually aldermen tabled the issue until their April 10 meeting, but not before floating options that included leaving the five-decade-old crèche in place, but with a sign indicating the city doesn’t endorse any particular religion; finding a new home for the crèche on neighboring church property; and adopting a policy that religious symbols should not be allowed on the green.
Aldermen did reach a consensus at the recommendation of City Manager Mel Hawley that a small, 31-year-old fund given to the city — originally $2,000 — to maintain the crèche should probably be transferred into private hands to maintain separation of church and state.
Spearheading the debate was a Jan. 30 letter to Mayor Michael Daniels and Hawley from resident Hannah Weisman, who stated:
“A nativity scene is an overtly religious symbol. Placing a nativity scene on public property ... each year demonstrates a disregard for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state ... Displaying only secular decorations such as white or colored lights at the holiday season would send the message that the Vergennes community is welcoming to all and respects the principles on which our country was founded.”
Some aldermen’s initial reaction was that the crèche might be illegal. Alderman Renny Perry said when he was a New Hampshire mayor his city had to remove a nativity scene from city hall, and Alderman Joe Klopfenstein said from a legal standpoint the city should consider moving it off the green.
But Hawley noted a 1997 federal court ruling had given communities some leeway. He handed out a December 2010 advisory sheet titled “Holiday Displays and Municipal Property” from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office.
The sheet concluded, “In a nutshell, we believe if municipal officials wish to permit holiday displays on public property, the physical display(s) itself and all of the historical and cultural facts surrounding the placement of the display(s) must support the conclusions that the display(s) are a celebration of the diversity of the holiday and not an endorsement of the religion.”
Hawley gave a brief history of the crèche to aldermen and a half-dozen in attendance on Tuesday. A resident built it about 50 years ago and maintained and installed it himself. It is now stored at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and maintenance and installation is handled by Vergennes Lions Club volunteers.
That history is now part of the city’s history, Hawley said.
“We need to tell the story about the nativity scene,” he said.
Given the legalities and the consideration to those who do not share the beliefs expressed by the crèche, Hawley said following the advice on the sheet might work best.
“Years and years ago, two thoughts weren’t given about it,” he said. “We should not have something in the park without a sign on it.”
Not all were sure that a sign would be enough. Resident Cheryl Brinkman pointed to the size of the display.
“It does give the appearance of being a Christian town,” Brinkman said.
Alderman Peter Garon called himself a strict Constitutionalist and said even with a sign the nativity scene would give the appearance of endorsing a religion and violate the principle of separation of church and state. Furthermore, there could be “a slippery slope” toward other religious displays.
“We need a broad policy to deal with the issue,” Garon said.
But Daniels worried that the city’s annual Holiday Stroll, which contains Christmas elements and brings visitors and shoppers into Vergennes in early December, might get caught in the same net.
“Are we going to ban ... an event that lures people into the city?” Daniels said.
Some residents urged a citywide vote on the question, a measure Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau also backed.
“I believe we have a lot of history here,” said resident Mary Harris. “This to me seems to be something that needs to go to a vote.”
“It should be our responsibility as a board ... It’s a much broader issue,” Garon said.
Before the issue was tabled aldermen said they would contact the churches that neighbor the green to gauge their interest as potential hosts for the nativity scene.
Daniels asked anyone with an opinion to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Alderman Randall Ouellette said he would welcome phone calls (his phone number is published).
Aldermen said they would look for a responsible answer.
“Maybe there’s a solution we can come up with without a lot of divisiveness,” said Alderman Bill Benton.
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