Devout Christians looking forward to celebrating the Christmas season in Gig Harbor this year are counting their blessings early.
Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard announced last week that it would proudly host the donated Nativity scene from resident John Skansi for placement along Harborview Drive during the month of December.
The announcement came soon after the Gig Harbor City Council voted 4-2 to not accept the donated Nativity scene to be placed in Skansie Brothers Park next to the traditional Christmas tree — a beloved city tradition that started in 2008 by Skansi and then-Councilman Jim Franich.
Last November, the tradition was halted when Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based agnostic and atheist nonprofit organization, threatened legal action should the city allow a Nativity scene on public property.
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At the Oct. 23 Council meeting, a majority of residents spoke in favor of accepting the Nativity scene for placement in Skansie Brothers Park. Ron Roark, managing director at the Boatyard, said his decision to welcome the Nativity scene on the business’ property was simply to support what residents demanded.
“We don’t have an ax in this game, whether it’s a good decision or a bad decision by the City Council. We support the process,” Roark said. “But it was clear that the community wanted a Nativity scene. We’re here to serve.”
Roark said the location of the boatyard, with its western and northern boundary bordered by Skansie Brothers Park, made it the next best location for the Nativity scene.
“We went live on Tuesday (Oct. 24) saying we would be happy to host it; we had 12,000 people engaged on Facebook. It went viral,” Roark said. “We didn’t have one negative comment out of 12,000 engagements. That is unusual for Gig Harbor — for all of us to be on the same page.”
On Oct. 26, those representing businesses, civic groups and churches, gathered to begin formulating festivity plans surrounding the Nativity scene throughout the month of December. Committee Chairman Gary Wiens said the group is respectful of the City Council’s “political perspective” on the matter.
“Our desire is to seize this opportunity to present the Nativity scene in the context of celebrating the Christmas season, bringing unity to the city and expressing the values of many in our community,” Wiens said.
For the City Council, whether to accept or deny a donated Nativity scene was, by no means, an easy decision to make.
Council members opened up to residents about where they stood — many of them revealing their religious leanings with frank honesty.
“Knowing my religious beliefs, I really wished I would never have to vote on this, because I consider myself a religious person,” said Council member Ken Malich. “I really believe in the Lord and I really believe that the Nativity scene is a great part of Christmas and it should be displayed. But I don’t believe that it should be displayed at a public park, because a public park, to me, belongs to everybody, including people who aren’t religious. (A public park) also belongs to many minorities who are not represented here (at this meeting) tonight.”
Malich joined Council members Casey Arbenz, Steve Ekberg and Paul Kadzik, in voting against accepting the donated Nativity scene. All four stated that in no way was the Nativity scene offensive, but that it was explicitly descriptive of a specific faith and therefore had no place on public property in a city-owned park.
Council member Tim Payne joined Council member Michael Perrow in supporting the motion, stating that accepting the Nativity scene would protect and preserve the heritage of Gig Harbor.
“Whether you’re a Catholic Croatian, or a Protestant Swede or Norwegian, who were the founding three groups of this community, the Nativity scene is more than a faith statement, it is a symbol of the uniqueness of Gig Harbor,” Payne said. “It is a part of that element that says we are Gig Harbor and we are different and we are not only going to celebrate this season but we’re going to celebrate our heritage.”
Residents interested in updates on the Nativity scene at the Boatyard can follow the Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard Facebook page.
A calendar of events will also be posted soon and updated on the Boatyard blog and calendar at gigharbormarina.com.