Turns out baby Jesus is in Gig Harbor after all.
Gig Harbor residents, some dressed as key figures from the Nativity scene, gathered Monday afternoon outside the city Civic Center for a “don’t hate, celebrate” rally aimed at honoring Christmas.
The protest had another purpose: to urge city officials to not let an outside group interfere with city traditions.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened to sue the city last month, leading Gig Harbor officials to block resident John Skansi from putting his personal Nativity display on city-owned property.
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Skansi has put the Nativity next to the city’s holiday tree each December since 2008, and some residents want to make sure the city doesn’t skip 2016.
As rain started to fall Monday, about 25 people stood holding signs and singing religious Christmas songs. Kaeley Triller held a sign reading “Don’t discriminate against Jesus, he’s the most inclusive man in history.”
“It’s one of the most sacred holidays for Christian people,” the Gig Harbor resident said. “For someone to tell me not to celebrate, it is discriminatory.”
On Monday, a statue of Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus appeared near the tree at Donkey Creek.
Before the council meeting began Tiller and others formed a large circle and said a prayer in the Civic Center foyer.
Once inside council chambers 20 people pleaded with the council to allow the Nativity display. No one spoke against it.
Skansi addressed the council and offered to work with them after Christmas on a solution to allow private displays on publicly-owned land. In the meantime though he wants his display in the park.
“My request is to put the Nativity back in the park ASAP. Like this week,” he said.
Skansi asked the council to take a “voice vote” on his request. Mayor Jill Guernsey replied a vote was inappropriate because it was not on the agenda and had not been noticed to the public.
Tacoma resident Josh Harris said he planned to apply for a temporary sign permit Tuesday from the city to put up the Nativity. Harris said his interpretation of state law is as long as the Nativity is 20-square-feet or less it should pass muster.
City officials did not comment on Harris’ suggestion or whether it was realistic Monday night.
After public comment Skansi said from the foyer he was prepared to take legal action against the city if it didn’t allow the Nativity this year.
He added the law firm he consulted would defend the city against the Freedom From Religion Foundation if the city called the nonprofit’s bluff.
“We don’t want litigation. We’re trying to work with the city,” Skansi said. “We want this back in there to keep the tradition going.”
Reading from a prepared statement posted to the city website and Facebook page earlier in the day, Guernsey explained Monday night the legal complications facing the city.
It’s one of the most sacred holidays for Christian people. For someone to tell me not to celebrate, it is discriminatory.
Kaeley Tiller, Gig Harbor resident
“Our lawyers advised that if we allow such displays we should first adopt a permit system so that all would be aware of what is permitted and that all kinds of displays would be allowed,” she said.
Had the city allowed Skansi to put up the display this year, “we would likely be spending thousands of taxpayer dollars defending a lawsuit about a private display,” she said.
“We chose not to expose our citizens to this kind of liability and therefore decided that for this year we would not allow such a display in our public park,” Guernsey said.
She noted the display could be placed on private property.
City Administrator Ron Williams said he had fielded “a lot” of calls about the Nativity since news of the situation was first published in The News Tribune last week. He said most people understand the city’s position.
“Many people have asked why doesn’t (Skansi) put his Nativity display on private property and have even offered private property,” Williams said in a phone interview Monday. “I called Mr. Skansi and offered, and he declined.”
The city will discuss how to handle future holiday seasons in January, Williams said.
“We’re going to have a public meeting of some kind to listen to the public and see what their desires are with respect to this and explore all of the options and consequences,” he said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted the city in the spring about its process for allowing private displays on public property after it received a complaint, according to co-founder and co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Our lawyers advised that if we allow such displays we should first adopt a permit system so that all would be aware of what is permitted and that all kinds of displays would be allowed.
Gig Harbor Mayor Jill Guernsey
The foundation represents agnostics, atheists and “free thinkers” across the country, with 17 chapters, including one in Spokane. The group has a history of challenging governments over the separation of church and state. In 2008, the foundation challenged a Nativity display inside the Legislative Building in Olympia.
After learning Gig Harbor had no process, a lawyer for the nonprofit sent a letter to the city Nov. 19 citing a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled it unconstitutional to allow religiously affiliated displays on government property when the government could be perceived as supporting or endorsing one religion.
The city chose not to challenge the foundation this year because of special circumstances, but city leaders believe the display is allowed because it is free speech in a public forum, Williams said.
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 does, Williams said.
On Monday, a statue of Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus appeared near the tree at Donkey Creek. The city was unaware of the statue until hearing about it from a reporter and would discuss how to respond later, Williams said.