A majority Catholic crowd with at least one atheist gathered Saturday afternoon to mark the opening of the controversial Nativity scene now displayed at North School Park in Arlington Heights.
Approved Thursday after a permit application and a few weeks of legal arguments over the right to free speech in a public forum, the scene is installed at the northwest corner of the park. A few sections of short, white fencing separate the Nativity, displayed by the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee, from other holiday displays and lights in the park, displayed by the Arlington Heights Park District.
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"This publicly owned property is a public forum for the expression of constitutionally protected free speech," reads a sign near the fence around the Nativity. "The Arlington Heights Park District does not sponsor, finance or endorse these expressions."
Jim Finnegan, a former Arlington Heights resident and chairman of the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee, on Saturday praised the park district for allowing the display of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a barn under an angel to be set up at the park.
He said the display is "the perfect size in the perfect spot," and he doesn't mind the sign alerting viewers it is separate from other decorations the park district displays, which fall under a theme of children's toys and include an airplane, a truck full of wrapped presents and Hanukkah dreidels.
"It's a wonderful teaching moment with your children or grandchildren," he said about the Nativity scene.
About 50 people attended a ceremony Saturday afternoon, praying and singing Christmas carols like "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World," as children added the baby Jesus figurine and some hay to make the Nativity complete.
"It's great to see the toys in the park, but what can be better than to see the baby Jesus to refresh why we celebrate Christmas," said Sue McPherrin of Arlington Heights.
Also marking the occasion was Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society. The public interest law firm filed a formal complaint against the park district in late November, saying the right to display a Nativity is protected under the First Amendment.
Privately funded displays on government-owned public forums, such as public parks, are legal, Brejcha said. Such displays are not considered a breach of the separation between church and state because they are not funded by any public money.
Buffalo Grove atheist Rob Sherman said he disagrees with the religious message of the Nativity, but has no issues with its display because it is clearly separated from secular items set up by the park district. He said he supports the Nativity Scene Committee's First Amendment rights to free speech and expression.
"I think the park district did a phenomenal job of finding a way to accommodate this religious expression while maintaining a bright line separation between the government's secular display and the private group's religious display," Sherman said.
At the ceremony Saturday afternoon, Sherman was introduced by Finnegan and wished a Merry Christmas.
"Hopefully we can set an example that atheists and Christians can be friends despite our theological differences," Sherman said.
The permit given by the park district allows the Nativity scene to remain on display until Jan. 6. Members of the Nativity Scene Committee said they want it to become an annual tradition.
"We're going to try to expand this," Finnegan said.