Happy holidays, Willis Park

Published 4:39 pm Friday, November 14, 2008

It’s that time of year when we hear heated arguments for and against placing religious displays in public places.

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments from a Utah religious sect seeking placement of another religious monument next to the Ten Commandments already on display in a city public park.

The issue might pop up again this year in Bainbridge as George and Nancy Nutting wish to place their live nativity scene in Willis Park again as they have in years past. George was fairly certain they would return even though as city regulations require, that it must be manned with live people, and they could only do it for three days. Rules, rules, rules.

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Bainbridge College professor John Vanzo will be displaying “The Celebration of Buddha’s Birth,” in Willis Park on Dec. 23-25.

Both displays certainly espouse a religious point of view.

City crews have been busy this week placing the usual seasonal decorations in Willis Park including the giant Santa on the corner of Broughton and West streets, shady brown beard and all.

The argument now before the Supreme Court involves a small religious sect in Pleasant Grove, Utah, called the Summums, who want to erect “The Seven Aphorisms of Summum.” They say since the city government allows other religious monuments in the city park—The Ten Commandments for example—they too should be allowed to display their “Seven Aphorisms,” which they say were given to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. Moses destroyed the tablet containing the aphorisms because he believed the people were not ready to receive them, the Summums say.

The case before the Supreme Court Justices tests whether or not a public body can select which religious sect can place their objects on public property, once another item is already in place. The question is, does this infringe upon the civil right of freedom of speech?

So are we at a crossroads where we accept all or none or some? Who decides?

For example, if the city of Bainbridge allows a nativity scene in Willis Park, or the Celebration of Buddha, even if only for three days, and if everyone abides by the city’s eight pages of rules, will the city have to allow any group of any political or religious persuasion to erect whatever they want to promote their views on public land?

For argument purposes, let’s say Bainbridge City Council decides to do away with all forms of religious monuments or displays. We accept Christmas as a religious event as well as a holiday event. The decorations depict both. As we drive around Bainbridge and look at the city’s decorations now going up, are the candles and bells considered religious or holiday decorations? Both may be considered religious symbols.

In the Willis Park, a lighted holiday decoration depicts four carolers holding what we assume are music books. We assume they are portraying the singing of Christmas Carols, which can be considered religious. Dressed as they are as 18th Century English carolers, it’s a good bet they’re not singing “Frosty the Snowman.”

Will the carolers have got to go?

The candles and the bells decorating city light posts and banners spanning city streets, could these be considered religious icons.

If so, will they have to come down?

If all others go, so then must the nativity scene and Buddha’s birthday.

Of course there’s a way around all of this. All items are allowable under my single classification. Designate everything as “holiday decorations,” and if you secretly want to consider some decorations religious, and some seasonal, then you have the First Amendment civil right to do so. Just keep it to yourself.

You might say, “who sez only the City of Bainbridge can put up decorations in the park or over the streets. It’s our town, isn’t it? It’s our park, isn’t it?”

But does this mean if you accept the Statue of Liberty, do you have to accept the Statue of Tyranny? Or monuments and displays dedicated to a plethora of political fanatics who through the centuries have caused an equal plethora of horrific human suffering?

I can see it now—a new monument is requested for Willis Park honoring the Union Soldier. City Council turns it down. A lawsuit ensues. All the way to the Supreme Court. Court says Freedom of Speech. One of the great civil liberties of America. Can’t be denied. Gotta allow it. Alternative? Take down the Civil War monument. Fair is fair. Equal opportunity under the law.

Well anyway…

…Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.