The Bethel Religious Display Committee meeting earlier this month got off to a tense start when members questioned if they had to start their work over again after it was determined they had not been formally sworn in. First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said he wanted the group to be less formal, but the town attorney said they'd have to operate as any other committee.
The group covered a lot of ground in their nearly two hour meeting. Among the big disagreements was whether a Nativity scene is considered a Christian symbol or if it's considered cultural. Concerns were raised about precedent and people not knowing year to year where to find the nativity.
Locations could be limited to PT Barnum Square because the traffic island on Main Street is such small area and may not be able to accommodate displays. Members also noted that there's a difference in visibility between PT Barnum Square, considered a premier location, and placing something in a location like Bennett Park. Other members note that the law doesn't take fairness into account, only if a decision is constitutional.
As long as there's a precedent or good reason for a decision, a committee member said it doesn't legally matter the decision is unfair to other displays. The town would have to prove sound reasons for why the creche works where it does. There were also questions on whether certain displays could be grandfathered in for particular locations. They also questioned how long displays could be set up.
Zoning regulations and safety concerns must be taken into account. First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker says if the original matter of a creche had gone to Planning and Zoning, it likely would have been rejected. One committee member questioned why the group isn't titled Proper Use of Public Property, and asked who authorized the municipal center lawn for art displays. Knickerbocker replied that the Board of Selectmen signed off, because it did not involve a constitutional question over religious displays.
The committee was set up to specifically address the time period between Thanksgiving, past New Year's Day.
The Town Attorney will attend the group's next meeting to answer all of their questions.