A decision on rules for religious displays on town-owned land in Bethel has been put off. The Bethel Board of Selectmen tabled the issue for more legal research.
The Committee making recommendations backed the idea of previous displays being grandfathered into their locations if they apply in future years, and every other applicant going into a lottery. The town's Attorney is looking into the proposal and was directed to report back to the Board.
The committee was formed after an uproar last December when an atheist group applied to put a banner up at PT Barnum Square wishing the town a happy holiday. It was placed near a nativity scene. Now, a resident is raising money for a menorah to celebrate Hanukkah. First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said in a comment on the fundraising social media post that it was his opinion they shouldn't solicit funds or spend money until the policy is developed at the issue resolved.
Knickerbocker cautioned that they are taking their time in making a decision, because if they get it wrong, taxpayer dollars will be spent on legal fees. He says the Board has two options, noting that both require people to accept that a long standing cultural tradition will change.
One is to allow all holiday displays, religious or otherwise. They would need to meet certain requirements, already in place. Knickerbocker said this is truly an "all or none" proposition because the town would not be allowed to deny or censor displays based on the beliefs of the person or group who want to use the property. The other option is to not allow any religious displays on public property. He added that while the Constitution speaks to the freedom to practice religion, courts have found that there is also a duty to respect other citizens desire to be free from religion, if they so choose.
Knickerbocker wrapped up his comments by saying he will not knowingly recommend a policy that will cost tens of thousands of tax dollars in legal defense when there are other needs to attend to in town.