VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen are expected to discuss at their meeting next week a draft policy that would allow a depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ to be displayed on the city green during the Christmas season along with a sign that made it clear the city did not endorse its implicit religious message.
Mayor Michael Daniels expects the draft policy to be posted on the city website — vergennes.org — sometime on Monday, April 2. He is asking for city residents to give him their feedback on the policy by 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 5, so he can include it in the packet of information sent to all aldermen in preparation of the April 10 meeting.
“We’re going toward letting it stay on the green but with the proper signage,” Daniels said.
On March 20, city councilors discussed whether to continue to allow the large Christian nativity scene to be displayed on the green after Daniels and City Manger Mel Hawley had receive a letter from resident Hannah Weisman. The letter stated that putting the “overtly religious symbol” on public property “demonstrates a disregard for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
At that meeting, aldermen discussed 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.
Alderman Bill Benton took a first stab at the draft policy then passed it on to Hawley and Daniels, who on Friday were soliciting feedback from the other council members before finalizing the draft. They hoped to have the draft policy on vergennes.org Monday so anyone interested could respond,
Daniels is asking city residents to send their feedback on the draft policy to him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniels said Benton used a sample policy from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns as a starting point for the policy he drafted.
Hawley said the policy for putting a crèche on public property was still a work in progress on Friday morning.
“The minimum is it has to have a sign that says at a minimum ‘This display is privately sponsored by “X” and that the city of Vergennes does not endorse any religious message,’” he said.
Hawley said he didn’t know exactly who would be identified as the sponsor in this case, but he said former Alderman Roger Hayes and fellow members of the Vergennes Lions Club had long maintained the nativity scene and that he thought it was stored at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Parish.
“The council will discuss the draft policy at its April 10 meeting, though they won’t necessarily adopt a policy,” Daniels said.
During the March 20 city council discussion on the crèche 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.”
He also noted then that the display was built, installed and maintained by Vergennes postmaster David Aubin around 50 years ago and later maintained by Hayes and the Lions. That history is now part of the city’s history, Hawley said.