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Article updated: 11/27/2012 6:07 AM

Parties try to avoid lawsuit over rejected Nativity scene

By Melissa Silverberg

The Arlington Heights Park District and the Thomas More Society said Monday they are hopeful their dispute over a Nativity scene for the Arlington Heights holiday display won't reach the lawsuit stage, but attorneys have not yet reached a solution.

On Friday the Thomas More Society filed a complaint with the Arlington Heights Park District because it rejected a Nativity scene for the annual holiday display in North School Park. The park district said it rejected the offer in part because it uses only its own lights for the display and because the theme of the display is children's toys.

Thomas Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, said the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee submitted a legitimate request to include a Nativity scene, "a constitutionally protected private expression of religious belief, among the many other planned Christmas-themed displays in this public celebration of the holiday season." The society argues that the display, which features more than 70,000 lights, has Hanukkah dreidels.

On Monday, park district Executive Director Steve Scholten said the park district's attorney is talking to the society's attorney and hopes to settle the matter quickly.

The Thomas More Society is a Chicago-based public interest law firm and has supported other Nativity scenes in public spaces.

"I'm hoping it will be resolved, but if not we'll go to court," Brejcha said on Monday, adding that a possible lawsuit would be based on First Amendment grounds because the parks are public property. "The land is government-owned, but it is for the people."

The request for the nativity originally came from Jim Finnegan, chairman of the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee and a former Arlington Heights resident of more than 30 years.

Park board President Maryfran Leno said Friday the request was inconsistent with the park district's long-standing practice of using only its own property in the display.

"We said thank you very much, but no thank you," Leno said.

The display in North School Park was lit on Friday evening and includes a Christmas tree, but Brejcha said that is not enough.

"This is what Christmas is all about -- it's not anti-snowman or anti-dreidel, it's pro-Nativity," Brejcha said. "A Christmas tree does not give the spiritual meaning of Christmas."

Village President Arlene Mulder was a member of the park district board when the holiday lights festivities were first moved to North School Park more than 20 years ago.

"The intent has always been to be inclusive," she said. "The display is about toys and the fun, playful part of the holidays to stay away from talking about any specific religion."

With Christmas less than a month away, officials said they are in discussions to make a decision sooner than later.

"There seems to be a positive approach from both sides," Mulder said. "I'm sure the park district will work to find an amicable solution."

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