While it wasn’t quite the display of emotion Jesus exhibited in the temple in Jerusalem in the cleansing of the Temple narrative in the Bible — overturning tables and driving folks out who he claimed were turning it into “a marketplace” — Gig Harbor resident Hannah Frances felt a strong desire to stand up for her freedom of religious expression after the city of Gig Harbor’s legal counsel advised against the city allowing a Nativity scene in Donkey Creek Park this year.
The decision to not allow the Nativity came of the heels of the city receiving a letter on Nov. 16 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
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.”
Frances dressed up as the Virgin Mary and even brought a baby Jesus doll with her to the Dec. 12 Gig Harbor City Council meeting.
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“The overlying theme for us as Christians is that we are supposed to stay quiet,” said Frances, who has lived in Gig Harbor for 28 years and said she supports the separation of church and state. “I reminded others that we do have a right to speak up.”
Frances was joined at the City Council meeting by others who also believed they should speak up on the issue. While Gig Harbor is the kind of town where various social — or in this case, faith-based — circles often overlap, Frances didn’t personally know any of the others who also showed up to make their voices heard.
While various local activists over the years have come out in force at meetings to propose or support everything from proposed development in Ancich Waterfront Park and the building or design of the lift station in Skansie Brothers Park or other lighting-rod development issues, this gathering might have come as a surprise to some. It perhaps shows a different side to the Gig Harbor community — one I thought perhaps wasn’t represented, at least in my nearly-three-year tenure as editor.
But this Nativity kerfuffle isn’t the type of attention the city — and the community — needs around this time of the year, Mayor Jill Guernsey told me last week.
There are plenty of complaints and hand-wringing from citizens that city officials have to deal with when land developers start making deals or bulldozers start clearing land, but that is to be expected in a town where many want things to stay the same. But this kerfuffle was a bit out of left field, the mayor said.
(The city) didn’t ask for this fight. We don’t want to fight. We didn’t start this.
Jill Guernsey, mayor of Gig Harbor
“(The city) didn’t ask for this fight,” Guernsey said. “We don’t want to fight. We didn’t start this.”
Questions remain about how the Freedom From Religion Foundation got wind of this Nativity display — especially after the display had been peacefully existing for between six to eight years already, by Guernsey’s estimates — and what exactly the Wisconsin-based foundation gains from successfully shielding it from public property in a small town on the other side of the country. But with Guernsey’s extensive law background, she knew the issue was going to cause some kind of response in the community.
“I knew this was going to be a passionate issue,” she said.
Although Frances noted that she didn’t see a single person at the meeting in support of not allowing the Nativity scene, the mayor said she received a lot of emails on the topic.
“There are multiple positions on this,” Guernsey said.
So where do we go from here? Will Santa decorations on city property start to be scrutinized? Because as Frances deftly pointed out, the legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. Or will the in-question Nativity scene find a new home — on private property — where it can flourish without the threat of removal?
Guernsey laments the fact that the controversy has brought a bit of a negative light on the community during a time of the year where people should be festive and count their blessings.
“That is the sad part of this ... people forget about Christmas,” she said.
But the kerfuffle might have even started a Nativity revolution in town.
“I’ve been seeing Nativity scenes pop up around town,” Frances said.
She’s also seeing another positive from the whole saga.
“This has been a blessing in disguise,” Frances said. “It has brought (those who share the same) faith together.”