VERGENNES — The crowd at the best-attended Vergennes city council meeting in decades saw aldermen on Tuesday move toward, but not adopt, a policy that would allow a longstanding Christian Nativity scene to remain on the city green while also allowing other groups to put up displays there.
In a 6-0 show of hands at the Vergennes Opera House, aldermen agreed a draft policy that was tabled for more work was, as stated by Mayor Michael Daniels, a “good starting point” toward a final policy that will permit displays — but only along with signs that state the city does not endorse them.
About 140 people, including a number of residents from surrounding towns, showed up on Tuesday to make their feelings known and watch aldermen handle the issue. Most of them wore yellow “Keep the Crèche on the Green” stickers that were handed out at the front door.
Many of them had already sent some of the roughly 70 emails to Daniels on the topic (see related story for sample emails), or had passed a petition to support the crèche or had made their opinions known on the street or through social media.
Residents on Tuesday expressed their emotional attachment to the Nativity scene that has been part of Vergennes’ holiday scene for five decades.
“Every year we go there. We take pictures,” said city resident Thomas DeMatties, who is a father of four children. “It’s part of our life.”
The issue arose because earlier this year a resident questioned the prominent crèche, believing it to be possibly city-owned and maintained.
In fact, the crèche is privately owned, maintained and annually erected. The city does have a small fund to support its maintenance; aldermen said they plan to divest the city of that fund.
But City Manager Mel Hawley told the crowd on Tuesday that city officials agreed the citizen had a point: Vergennes does not pass the “general observer” test, if it appears the city endorses and supports a religious display.
“If a general observer thought the Nativity scene was owned by the city of Vergennes and put up by the city of Vergennes, that was a problem,” Hawley said. “We need to correct the situation.”
The policy under council review does not specifically refer to religion. It requires any event or display to be accompanied by a sign identifying its sponsor, and requires an application that includes a photo or sketch and dimensions.
The city clerk would have the right to approve displays from Oct. 15 to March 15, but the council would have to approve displays during the rest of the year, when regularly scheduled events crowd the calendar. Displays would be limited to 60 days in duration, and could not be higher than 10 feet or have a footprint greater than 200 square feet.
Although it is not written in the policy, Daniels said the city would put up its own signs at the four entrances to the green indicating it does not endorse or sponsor displays.
Hawley said because it is a policy, aldermen could revisit it at any time even after they adopted a version at a future meeting.
“This is a policy. Policies can change,” Hawley said. “This is a document that may have to change, and change many times.”
Alderman Bill Benton, who did most of the writing, acknowledged the policy could open the door for some displays that not all residents might like, and, for example, one email noted that not all might appreciate displays by Wiccans or Moonies.
“It is a delicate policy. It could be taken advantage of,” Benton said.
After taking the 6-0 vote and before opening the issue up for comment on Tuesday, Daniels said he would continue to accept emails at [email protected] that he would share with other city officials.
He also told the standing-room-only crowd that he believed all in the room were working toward a “common goal” of finding a lawful way to keep the crèche.
“There really doesn’t need to be a side,” Daniels said. “It really begins with the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Commenters focused on constitutional and free speech issues as well as their affection for the seasonal display of the crèche.
Most agreed that the proposed policy was an acceptable compromise if it meant keeping the display.
“It is constitutional to have a crèche ... It has been supported by many cases already,” said city resident Donna Scott. “If it is necessary to put up a sign, that should be done. I don’t see a reason for banning it or banning any other religious displays.”
The idea that the crèche constituted free speech was a common theme.
Addison’s Mark Boivin noted other organizations, including the United Way, have displays there, and the United Way supports Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions, which he said are against his religious beliefs. But he said he supported the free speech rights for all organizations on the green.
New Haven’s David Millson sounded the same theme.
“I have to go back to the First Amendment,” Millson said. “In this case, the more the merrier ... Why not teach kids about everyone’s religion?”
City resident and middle school teacher Jay Stetzel also urged an inclusive approach in the policy application.
“If we do not want to create civic division, we should create a space that is open to all people at all times,” Stetzel said.
Several commenters objected to the Oct. 15-through-March 15 time restriction in the proposed draft. Planning commission member Alex McGuire was one who noted that major Jewish holidays fall outside that time frame, as do at times Muslim holidays that vary on lunar phases.
Others suggested that the policy could be amended to block out major events and otherwise allow displays on the same basis as the cold-weather months.
“I would encourage the city council to have the same rules the whole year round,” said Vergennes resident Hannah Weisman.
The tone remained, as Daniels requested, respectful, and Vergennes Residential Care Home owner Tim Buskey injected some humor.
Buskey, an Addison resident, said he has an up close and personal relationship with Santa Claus, who attends the city’s annual early-December Holiday Stroll. Buskey said Santa was himself “a religious symbol” and Santa was not happy about the situation.
“I spoke with Santa this morning, and he said he would feel very uncomfortable if the crèche was not here, and he might not appear if it were not there,” Buskey said.
One commenter did disagree with the theory put forth by a couple other commenters that the city council should keep the crèche because a majority of residents wanted it.
Patty Jackman-Kellogg said the majority isn’t always the best decision-maker, and said if the majority had its way in the past African-Americans might not have civil rights and gays might not be allowed to serve openly in the military. She said she supported the crèche, but that there was nothing wrong with bringing up the issue.
“Thank God the majority doesn’t always rule,” Jackman-Kellogg said. “I hope the people in the community who had the courage to speak out will be treated with dignity and respect.”
Daniels said he applauded those in attendance for doing “a great job” of remaining respectful, and Addison’s Boivin did so as well.
“This meeting is one of the reasons I like Vermont,” Boivin said. “People can discuss, and it remains civil.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]