By DON AINES
10:12 PM EST, December 12, 2012
An offer from a Catholic priest to add a manger scene in Joseph Hancock Park as an expression of “Christmas culture” was debated by the Hancock Town Council on Wednesday night, which then unanimously approved the display.
The council approved the placing of a crèche of other symbols in the park with some qualifications. First would be that such displays be sponsored by organizations within Hancock; second, that the organization have an insurance rider; and third, that the town place a disclaimer stating that it was put up by a private organization and the town neither condoned nor condemned the display.
Though the vote was unanimous, it raised concerns with Councilman Sinclair Hamilton.
“We live in a very litigious society,” Hamilton said. While many people might want a manger scene, “it only takes one person to take you to court.”
“There are a lot of potential liabilities to the town,” Mayor Daniel Murphy said.
Murphy noted that a number of churches in town have manger scenes, including one across the street from the park.
“That’s private property, obviously,” said the Rev. John Lombardi of St. Peter Catholic Church in Hancock, who came to the meeting with a letter that he said was endorsed by the pastors of several other churches in town.
The park has a Christmas tree and a snowman, and a manger scene is another expression of Christmas and Christian culture, Lombardi said.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion, but not religious activities, Lombardi said. Congress has a chaplain, he said.
“I think it’s important for town government to remain neutral,” Councilwoman January Souders said.
Allowing the religious scene in the park could open it up to other displays, which people might find offensive, Hamilton said.
“Presumably, if you put a manger next to the Christmas tree” a group such as the Ku Klux Klan could put up a cross with flames painted on it, Hamilton said.
“Is there some kind of motive regarding the church-state situation?” Hamilton asked Lombardi.
“Is there a secret agenda? No,” Lombardi said. “I just felt something is missing.”
Town Manager David Smith said the additional conditions, including the insurance rider, could limit the number of groups or individuals who could qualify to place a display in the town’s parks.
In other meeting news, Hancock businessman Anthony McCusker was unanimously appointed to town council to fill the unexpired term of former councilman Tim Smith, who recently resigned to run for mayor.
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