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Debate on religious displays continues in Claremont

  • Morgan Bardonstone, 18, of Unity, right, and Ambrose Donth, 19, of Claremont, pass by a large menorah on display as part of the holiday decorations in Broad Street Park in Claremont, N.H., Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. City resident Sam Killay, an atheist, has registered a complaint with the city council against the display of the menorah and a creche in the park. He said that having the symbols on city property violates the establishment clause of the first amendment and that if they are not taken down he will apply to put up anti-religious symbols alongside them. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, August 16, 2019

CLAREMONT — Public comment on Thursday during a committee meeting about religious symbols in Broad Street Park indicated city officials may struggle to find a compromise that appeases all residents.

The City Council’s Policy Committee has not yet formulated a proposal but is supposed to present a recommendation to the full council, perhaps next month, giving enough time for it to be aired before the public prior to Christmas and Hanukkah.

Last December, resident Sam Killay told the council he views the crèche and menorah in the park a public endorsement of religion, which is in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Killay, who said he is an atheist, asked the council to move the displays to private property, perhaps the church across from the park, and to bar city money from being used to store and maintain the displays.

The request ignited controversy in the city, as several people defended the city’s tradition and cited court rulings they interpret to mean the displays are constitutional.

The holidays ended and the items were removed before any decision was made, and the council eventually referred the matter to the policy committee, which includes three city councilors; John Simonds, the Sullivan County Sheriff and a former city councilor; and resident Bonnie Miles.

At Thursday night’s committee meeting, Killay said one Supreme Court ruling in a Pennsylvania case declared a nativity scene could not remain in a public place because of its prominent position — on the steps of a courthouse — which was viewed as an endorsement of religion. In that same ruling, a menorah was allowed because it was not as prominently displayed. Killay compared the ruling regarding the nativity to where the city places its crèche and menorah.

“I can’t see it as anything other than an endorsement of religion. It is literally on the city’s front lawn, right next to the war monuments and the flag,” Killay said at the meeting.

He emphasized that his views are not about intolerance of religion.

“This is strictly about my government supporting one religion over another,” he said.

State Rep. Walt Stapleton, R-Claremont, supports leaving the displays in the park but also believes a policy is a good idea.

“I agree there should be a policy, otherwise the argument goes on and on and also, with no policy, anything goes,” Stapleton said. “We need a policy that complies with the constitution and Supreme Court and gets us out of this quagmire and constant debate.”

Resident Joe Osgood also said he wants a policy that allows citizens to display what they want so long as no city money is used to erect or store the displays.

One committee member took a different view.

“As long as we are within the law, we don’t need a policy,” said Simonds. “As we continue, that will be my position.”

He sees no need to alter the city’s long-standing practice and believes previous Supreme Court rulings back him up.

“If the Supreme Court says we can do it, why are we messing with it?” Simonds asked aloud.

The committee will resume the discussion Sept. 5.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com