Sorry, Gig Harbor, baby Jesus won’t be lying in a manger next to the city’s holiday tree this year.
A Wisconsin-based atheist, agnostic and “free thinker” organization threatened legal action against the city if it allowed a nativity scene on public property.
The city chose not to challenge the Freedom From Religion Foundation this year because of special circumstances, but city leaders believe the display is allowed because it is free speech in a public forum, said City Administrator Ron Williams.
The city doesn’t own or put up the display, but has allowed resident John Skansi to put it on city property for nearly a decade. This year it would have been in Donkey Creek Park.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the city Nov. 16, citing a U.S. Supreme Court case.
The justices ruled it unconstitutional to allow religiously affiliated displays on government property where it could be perceived the government is supporting or endorsing one religion.
The foundation argued Gig Harbor doesn’t have a permitting process for such displays, and allowing the Nativity in the park would make it a “government-sponsored display.”
“The Supreme Court has ruled it impermissible to place a Nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property,” the letter states.
Putting a Nativity in a public park is a healthy thing. It’s a great thing to do. It is part of what Christmas is.
John Skansi, Gig Harbor resident behind Nativity scene
Historically, the city tree has been in Skansie Brothers Park (named for ancestors of John Skansi), which has a long tradition of being used by the public for events unaffiliated with the city, making it a public forum, Williams said.
This year the tree was moved from the waterfront park because of construction. Instead, it’s at the less-used Donkey Creek Park. The public forum argument is harder to prove there because the park doesn’t have a history of use like Skansie Brothers Park, Williams said.
Therefore, the city’s legal counsel advised against allowing the Nativity display this year.
“It’s a beautiful display,” Williams said. “If it were up to me, personally I would love to see it there.”
Skansi is disappointed he can’t present the display to continue the tradition he started in 2008 with then-City Councilman Jim Franich.
The duo staged the Nativity display in the park that bears his family name next to the city’s official holiday tree to push a message.
“We can openly celebrate Christmas anywhere we want,” Skansi said this week. “Putting a Nativity in a public park is a healthy thing. It’s a great thing to do. It is part of what Christmas is.
“This is the message we wanted out there,” he said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a problem with that message on city-owned property.
We don’t think religion or irreligion should be on public property.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president Freedom From Religion Foundation
“We don’t think religion or irreligion should be on public property,” said foundation co-founder and co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Instead, it belongs on private or church property, she said.
Gig Harbor landed on the group’s radar because someone complained to the organization, Gaylor said.
“We always act on complaints from individuals in the community who understand the law and respect the separation of church and state,” she said. “We were following up on this display that is impermissible.”
The foundation has chapters in 17 states, including in Spokane. Its website doesn’t provide a membership total, but says the group represents 25,000 atheists and agnostics across the country.
It was co-founded by Galyor and her mother in 1977 and became a national nonprofit a year later.
The group has a history of challenging governments across the country, including Washington’s Legislature. In 2008, the foundation challenged a Nativity display inside the Legislative Building in Olympia.
The dispute prompted the state to move the display outside.
A circus atmosphere followed as people applied for permits to put up displays like a “flying spaghetti monster,” a poem slamming Santa Claus from a Kansas church and a Jerry Seinfeld-inspired “Festivus” pole.
Ultimately, a moratorium was issued on the displays.
When governments allow Nativity displays on public property, the foundation counters by erecting its winter solstice display, Gaylor said.
It includes a sign that reads in part: “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is by myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
The group also has its own version of a Nativity scene with Thomas Jefferson, Lady Liberty, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin standing around a manger holding the Bill of Rights, Gaylor said.
Gig Harbor has received “sporadic complaints” in the past from people upset with the Nativity scene, Williams said. This is the first threat of legal action.
It’s a beautiful display. If it were up to me, personally I would love to see it there.
Ron Williams, Gig Harbor City Administrator
In the past, the city added secular decorations to the park to appease people upset with the religious symbolism of the Nativity, he said. Williams said he was not aware of other citizen requests to put up nonreligious displays near the tree around the holidays.
The city expects to return its tree-lighting ceremony to Skansie Brothers Park in 2017. The City Council will decide next year whether to implement a permitting process to allow private displays on public property, Williams said.
The council will discuss the issue at public meetings. If it agrees to a permitting process, Skansi could return his display to the waterfront park.
Gaylor said she hopes that doesn’t happen.
“They shouldn’t open it up,” she said.
If they do, the foundation will be there with its winter solstice display, she added.
Skansi said he was tired of seeing “a very small minority stopping this,” adding the display is “perfectly legal” for a public park.
“It’s hard to understand why it is a problem,” he said. “People are afraid to put religious things in public places. Why not just tolerate it?”
Staff writer David Montesino contributed to this report.