Earlier this year Jim Finnegan, chairman of the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee(INSC) and former Arlington Heights resident, offered to donate a nativity scene to the Arlington Heights Park District (AHPD), to display among the holiday light displays at North School Park.
As previously stated by Board President, Maryfran Leno, the Park District turned down Mr. Finnegan’s offer because it was inconsistent with the Park District’s practice of only displaying its own property in the park. The holiday light display has been an annual tradition at the Park District for over 20 years and has focused on featuring seasonal toys.
In response to the District’s decision not to accept a donation of the nativity scene, the Thomas More Society submitted a formal letter of complaint on behalf of the INSC, asserting that displaying the nativity scene is ‘constitutionally protected.’
The Park District, through its attorney, Tim Riordan, responded to the claim by pointing out that the INSC misconstrued and misrepresented the Park District’s position. The Park District had merely refused to accept Mr. Finnegan’s offer to donate the nativity scene to the Park District for inclusion in its holiday light display, it had not denied the INSC’s right to display the Nativity scene itself. And the INSC was provided with copies of the Park District policies and procedures for obtaining a permit to use Park property, along with an application for a permit.
"The Thomas More Society is correct in that freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution," said Steve Scholten, Executive Director. "Courts have generally held that public agencies must allowreligious expression in public forums, on a non-discriminatory basis. For example, in case number 87 C 10746, Gutzmacher v. Public Building Commission, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District ofIllinois, Eastern Division, Senior Federal District Judge James B. Parson ruled on Dec. 4, 1989 that the Public Building Commission was enjoined from discriminating against all forms of religious expression and ordered the Public Building Commission to permit Gutzmacher to erect a nativity scene display during the Christmas season," added Scholten.
Since this decision, the INSC sponsored nativity has become an annual tradition at the Daley Plaza at Christmastime. According to Mr. Finnegan, similar nativity scenes have been on display in front of the Village of Glenview, within City Hall in North Barrington and in the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
The Village of Northbrook is another example of a nearby community with a public forum that has allowed the display of a privately owned nativity on Village owned property. North School Park in Arlington Heights is considered a public forum and has historically provided a space for the expression of constitutionally protected free speech, subject to reasonable Park District rules and regulations. By law, the Park District must administer this public forum without discrimination and has done so in the past.
North School Park was the setting for the expression of free speech in May 2002 when Reverand Jeff Deardorff of the First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights received approval of his park usage application to host a National Day of Prayer. More recently, North School Park was the setting for the expression of free speech in September 2011 when the Park District approved a park usage application submitted by Father Correy Brost of St. Viator High School to host an interfaith service for peace in remembrance of the 10th anniversary of the tragedy at the World Trade Center.
"When it comes to managing the Park District on a day to day basis, as employees of the District, we are bound to do what is legal under Federal law. We do not impose our personal beliefs or religious views in these matters because we are stewards of both the public’s trust and tax dollars," stated Scholten.
"The application process required of Mr. Finnegan is the same process that the Park District requires of all citizens, civic, and religious or other outside entities requesting to use North School Park," said Steve Scholten. Annually, the District fields numerous requests from private citizens, civic groups and others who would like to host parties, weddings, events and the like in our parks and facilities. The District has established procedures for managing these types of park usage requests," ended Scholten.
On December 3, 2012 Mr. Finnegan filed an application on behalf of the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee for permission to display the nativity scene in North Park School Park.
On December 13, 2012, the Park District completed its review of the application and issued the approval to the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee as it had satisfied the insurance and other Park District permit requirements.
The decision to approve the permit application for the display of the nativity scene is not unlike past approvals given to similar park usage applications for the expressions of free speech.
By agreeing to the requirements set forth in the Park District’s park usage application, Mr. Finnegan has assumed all responsibility for the nativity scene. The Park District, in turn, acknowledges that the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee has produced the proper certificate of insurance and approved signage clearly stating that ownership and maintenance of the nativity scene is the responsibility of the INSC. This sign will be installed next to the nativity scene.
The permit approved the nativity scene display for the period between Saturday, December 15, 2012-January 6, 2013. All work needed to deliver, erect, maintain and remove the display shall be provided by Mr. Finnegan’s group solely. The Park District will not provide any AHPD personnel or services.
"We want to be perfectly clear on this, approval of Mr. Finnegan’s permit application to display the nativity scene should not in any way be seen as an indication that the nativity is now or that it will become an annual component in the District’s holiday light display," stressed Scholten.
The Arlington Heights Park District enriches the community by providing quality recreation, facilities