The Christmas story behind the Gig Harbor controversy

Dec 23, 2016, 5:42 AM

Gig Harbor...

An annual nativity scene by a private resident in Gig Harbor (similar to this one) was cancelled for 2016 because of threats waged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (AP)


The news out of Gig Harbor that an annual nativity display was banned this year has gone back-and-forth between a national secular organization and locals who demand a Christmas display on city property.

But there’s more to the story, according to the city’s administrator. The Gig Harbor nativity drama has been unfolding for more than a year, coming to a head this season when the city opted not to allow the Christmas scene in a public park. It’s a scene that a private citizen has put up for nearly a decade.

“The city never permitted this,” said Ron Williams, Gig Harbor city administrator. “This private citizen put it up there and nobody said anything. There were no permits. No procedures, or formal approval.”

Related: The real reason Gig Harbor cannot have a nativity scene this year

Though the city never paid attention to the Nativity scene set up in Skansie Brothers Park — by a Skansie family member — Williams admits the city received complaints about the religious display on public property. The city doesn’t have any policies or procedures to allow any such displays by private citizens on government property. And that lack of policy is what led to the controversy Gig Harbor is currently in.

“Previous administrations decided to allow it to stay for reasons I am not sure about,” Williams said. “But we did get some complaints. We analyzed those complaints and decided they were not sufficient to prohibit the person from putting it up. So it was allowed to stay over the last several years.”

Gig Harbor responds

But eventually, a complaint did come to Gig Harbor that caused city officials to pay attention.

“Shortly after last year’s Christmas season we got a formal public records request from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which I had never heard of,” Williams said. “They asked us to show them our procedures, our permits for permitting this nativity display. We didn’t have any so we responded to them accordingly.”

“Last summer, the gentlemen who put up the nativity scene came to see me and showed me what he claims was a legal basis allowing him to put it up,” he said. “I looked at the documents and thanked him for his time. In November, we got a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating that since we did not have any procedures or policies, our practice was exclusionary and involved favoritism. And they demanded that we not allow it.”

The letter from the secular foundation, Williams said, stated that because they did not have any procedures for the Christian display, the city was sending an unconstitutional message that it endorses Christianity.

Gig Harbor lawyers looked at the letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the documents provided by the private citizen. They also researched the Freedom From Region Foundation.

“We found out they are a legitimate concern,” Williams said. “We found out they have something in the neighborhood of 80 lawsuits around the country. And they seem to pick on smaller cities, such as ours. Our lawyers advised us it is a legitimate threat and gave us a variety of options for us to consider.”

One option was to ditch the display this Christmas season — which is what the city decided.That didn’t sit well with many Gig Harbor residents, some of whom have complained to the city. About 23 aired their grievances to the city council at a recent meeting. And many met with Williams about the issue. He posed one question to them: Should the city pay tax dollars to fight the Freedom From Religion Foundation?

“And unanimously they said ‘no,'” Williams said. “And that is the council’s perspective. Not to spend city money on the lawsuit.”

In 2017, the city will decide how to move forward. A parks commission meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 4. The city will discuss the issue with its residents then. One option the city will consider is whether or not to establish a permitting system for such private citizen displays. Williams said that many cities that have faced the Freedom From Religion Foundation have done just that.

“It ends up permitting things that sometimes the citizens didn’t anticipate,” Williams said.

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The Christmas story behind the Gig Harbor controversy