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posted: 12/13/2012 5:48 PM

Nativity for Arlington Hts. park formally approved

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The Arlington Heights Park District approved a permit Thursday for a controversial Nativity scene to be added to the village's holiday lights display in North School Park.

The installation is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.

Jim Finnegan, chairman of the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee and former Arlington Heights resident, wanted the park district to display a Nativity scene along with the rest of its lights display that was turned on Nov. 23.

The park board initially refused, saying it was inconsistent with their practice of using only their own decorations -- a toy-themed display.

In response, the Thomas More Society submitted a formal letter of complaint, saying their right to display a Nativity is protected under the First Amendment.

"The Thomas More Society is correct in that freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution," said Steve Scholten, executive director in a statement on Thursday. "Courts have generally held that public agencies must allow religious expression in public forums, on a nondiscriminatory basis."

The Nativity Scene Committee has gotten nativities installed on public land in Glenview, North Barrington, Springfield and at Daley Plaza in Chicago.

Scholten said North School Park has been the setting for religious displays in the past, including a National Day of Prayer in 2002 and an interfaith service remembering the Sept. 11 attacks in 2011.

"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," Scholten stated.

"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."

Finnegan had not originally submitted a park use application, as is required by the park district to use public space or any kind of display, including parties, weddings or other events. Finnegan did apply for the permit on Dec. 3, park district officials said, after the complaint had been made. The permit was approved for Saturday, Dec. 15 through Jan. 6, 2013.

Finnegan has assumed responsibility for the nativity and a sign will be placed near it stating that the display is privately funded by the Nativity Scene Committee, not public funds.

"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," Scholten said.

Finnegan said he and other supporters and local church members will come to North School Park at 1 p.m. Saturday at 1 p.m. to celebrate the nativity with prayer and songs.

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