VERGENNES — Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels in the past three weeks received roughly 70 citizen emails on the topic of whether the city should allow a Christian Nativity scene to be displayed on the city’s central green, as it has been for the past five decades.
City officials do not store or maintain the crèche, but there is a small line item in the city budget that supports its maintenance.
Vergennes aldermen proposed a policy — which they discussed on Tuesday; see story — that would allow private displays on the green, subject to city approval but without city endorsement. That policy would require a sign accompanying any display making it clear the city does not endorse its content. At the same time, aldermen have proposed divesting the city of the crèche maintenance fund.
Emailers commented on the draft policy, which was published on the city’s website, as well as the central issues of separation of church and state and how Vergennes should handle the nativity scene. A large majority of the emails supported keeping the crèche in its place, many in the context of the proposed policy.
Excerpts from some of those emails are reprinted herein. Because those who sent the emails did not expect to be identified, names of the writers were not used. The emails were lightly edited for spelling and grammar and are reprinted below:
• “The crèche in the park is a long time tradition in this town which is greatly appreciated by many people, whether they are religious or not. I would encourage the aldermen to support this draft (policy) and continue to allow this to grace our park for many years to come.”
• “I have always been very proud that Vergennes has been open minded enough to not allow the ‘politically correct’ winds to blow a long standing tradition away because of a minority of people who want to remove all signs of faith from the public view ... I am very hopeful that there will be a clear position taken in favor of this continued blessing to the Addison County community.”
• “We both grew up with a crèche displayed in our homes and enjoyed visiting the crèches at our respective churches ... These are the two places where religious symbols belong: at home and at a place of worship. Religious symbols are powerful and carry deep meanings and emotions for people connected to their respective religion. But, it is important to recognize this same symbol can evoke equally powerful emotions and messages that isolate and alienate when placed in an inappropriate manner. The placement of such a strong religious symbol, literally at the center of our city, sends an incredibly powerful message. Intentional or not, this crèche can be perceived (wrongfully) as defining our community as a ‘Christian town.’ This ‘Christian town’ message is not representative of the community as a whole and this thinking is one that alienates many community members.”
• “I would like to share a thought that I shared with other area pastors: ‘I am thinking that if one religion can set up a display in the park during one of their high holy days (like us on Christmas), that other religions should have that open to them as well. In the case of atheists they will have to invent a special day or set of days so they can display something that they revere. Frankly, atheism ought to be legally tagged as a “religion.” I believe it would help clarify things.’ I’m not sure what the city would say to this notion, but it seems that it might work pretty well in our small city toward supporting the freedom of religious expression.”
• “I strongly disagree with the removal of the nativity scene as it represents my freedom of faith and celebration of Christmas. I hope that my rights as a Christian and other Christians may be preserved and we will be able to continue to enjoy the traditional nativity scene on the town green.”
• “The crèche scene is one that is dear to my heart and one that is a centerpiece in our family’s living room. Our young family loves to sing in front of it throughout the Advent season. This background information is important for you to understand my perspective ... I have often been quite surprised that the crèche has been in our City Park, and I have felt that it is a passively exclusive gesture toward non-Christians. If either the Episcopal or Methodist church were to agree to host the crèche, I think it would be far more appropriate placement of the figures. That would keep the figures close to their traditional placement, but not use city property ... Only those who walked close enough to the crèche would see ... a sign, and those who feel excluded by its presence would not be likely to go and view the crèche up close.”
• “Although we saw the awe on our 3-year-old grandchild’s face at Christmas as he looked at the lifelike manger scene in downtown Vergennes, we wish all those opposed to its presence could have seen his eyes light up. Please keep the display and don’t be the Grinch who stole Christmas for children. If others want to display their holiday symbols, there is certainly enough space for them to do so. This display doesn’t establish a religion but allows the free exercise of it. Isn’t this what America is all about?”
• “I do not see this issue as being against ‘Separation of Church and State.’ All Citizens should have equal opportunity to use the park ... Our community is made up of many interests, representing all the people. The City of Vergennes is certainly not promoting any interest/religion but only allowing use of the space by its citizens.”
• “I am so very upset and disgusted to think we have people in our beautiful city that come up with ridiculous issues for the city council to resolve. This beautiful scene has been in our park and enjoyed by most everyone for many years without any regards to this being a Christian town. It is a tradition that natives of Vergennes look forward to every Christmas. I sincerely hope this can be resolved soon and then move onto more important issues. Please do not move the Nativity scene to another location.”
• “I have enjoyed it since I was a child, my children have enjoyed it and it (is) a tradition in this city. During the busy Holiday Season when stress is high and time is short it is nice to take a few minutes in the park and remember what the season is really about. For those that take a different view I invite them to add a display of their own.”
• “I am disheartened that a person could make such a demand of our ‘godly’ city. I can only hope and pray that the party will be deemed foolish and looked upon with disdain ... Each year I look in amazement at the Manger in the park and feel a connection between it and our town offices and know that our city is in good hands with God’s help. If we take ‘God’ out of the park, what will be next from the minority ‘non-Christians’? They’ve already taken religion out of schools and look at some of our youth today with no hope, self-esteem, or faith. I am hoping that this action will pull Vergennes together in a new way. Praying for a Victory in Christ!”
• “I consider myself an atheist. Yet, I see absolutely no harm in a Christian display (or a Jewish display, or any other religious display) on public property so long as it is clear that it is not a government endorsement of a particular religion. Having lived in Vergennes for nearly 20 years, I know that having the nativity scene in the park is a ‘part of our community’ and should be seen as something that unites not divides.”
• “It is a long-standing tradition for people in Vergennes. I am not particularly religious, but I find the scene providing many other emotions that are not religious. It is a sign of the end of a year, beginning of a new year. It is folk art at its finest. I wish we did not have to have a sign near it, but I find that a far better option than not having it at all.”
• “I can think of no better impression that I would like to see the Vergennes City Park present than one of inclusion rather than exclusion. To ban the Nativity is an act of exclusion; to open the park to other celebrants of other traditions is an act of inclusion and compromise that meets all the legal standards already set forth in response to challenges such as this in towns and cities across the nation.”
• “As a lifelong, third generation atheist, I have always been troubled by the annual nativity scene. I have no problem with my Christian neighbors decorating their homes and churches with religious symbols, and enjoy sharing in the secular aspects of seasonal holidays with friends of many faiths. My difficulty is with the appearance of religious symbols in a shared public space. I appreciate the intention of the proposed policy requiring signage designating the nativity scene as the private expression of an individual or group. This does assure me that the town government is not officially endorsing a particular religious point of view. However, I am concerned that this could become potentially divisive to our community. While Christian, and to a lesser extent Jewish, symbols are widely deemed acceptable, are we ready to accept Muslim symbols? How about Wiccan or Moonie symbols? What would happen if an atheist ... felt moved to put up an anti-religion display? ... Perhaps even vandalism or other acts of intolerance?”
• “In a day and age in which we put so much import on diversity and tolerance how can we cower in fear of those who would challenge every American’s religious rights and freedom of expression? Why not add a Menorah, a Star of David, or other symbols of American traditions? Let’s welcome people of all cultures, races and creeds to join in our celebration with their own.”
• “As a citizen of Vergennes, who enjoys the display along with my family, I support the right of other citizens in maintaining and displaying this and any other peaceful exhibit. It is appropriate for the city to acknowledge/clarify that public funds are not utilized toward such exhibits, whether there is religious context or not.”
• “I have always questioned the placement of this Nativity scene. This display makes me feel alienated and does not represent my religious views at all. I am not the only non-traditional resident who is offended that the center of our city clearly sends a message that ‘we’ are outsiders. The religious displays belong on religious property. Community events belong on community property. It’s that simple.”
• “This is an issue that touches so many people and, as with most decisions, it will be impossible to please everyone. I hope that through this process we will be able to respect one another, value tradition and follow the law. If there is a way to become more inclusive through regulations you draw up for the use of space in the park, that would be valuable. We are so fortunate to have this beautiful space in the center of our city. I love the variety of activities that take place there.”