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Michigan Voters Nix Nativity Scene on Public Property

Voters in Berkley, Mich., turned down an amendment to the city charter on Tuesday that would have allowed a nativity scene to return to the lawn outside their City Hall.

The charter amendment failed by a 55 to 45 percent margin with 4,136 votes cast in total, according to unofficial results from the city clerk’s office.

Some residents of the town of more than 15,000 were outraged that the city and a local clergy association cut a deal with the American Civil Liberties Union to move a crèche, which had been displayed on public property for about 25 years, away from government grounds and onto a patch of grass outside a church.

The display spent its first Christmas at its new location last year, but those who want to return the nativity scene to public property petitioned to get the measure on Tuesday’s general election ballot.

"They didn't try to resolve it; they just wanted to take our nativity away," said Georgia Halloran, 62, who has led the drive to return the crèche to its former location. "People are very upset that the ACLU came in and told us to get rid of our nativity and the city capitulated to them."

City officials say they weighed many options and made the decision to move the exhibit with the help of the local clergy association — whose members are Christian and Jewish — and the ACLU. If they’d left the display alone, according to the city, they would have had to make it more secular to comply with laws about religious displays on government property. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a nativity scene can be constitutional on public property if secular decorations are incorporated.

So instead, the city donated it to the clergy group, which plans to move the crèche from parish to parish around the community.

"After much discussion and review, we decided the best place to put it was with the clergy," said Berkley City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa. "This way, it would be placed in an area where it was more visible to the public and get more exposure."

Halloran said the crèche was built and given to the city by a local resident in the late 1970s, and has been in front of the town City Hall for much of the 37 years she's lived there.

She disputed the argument that the nativity is more visible outside the church, along one of the town's main highways, than it was in its old spot.

And in her opinion, the display was already "secular" — incorporating non-religious holiday symbols including Santa Claus and his sleigh. She said residents who want it moved back to its original place have offered to add more if necessary.

"It's always had secular items," she said. "We have a Santa Claus, Christmas trees, banners on our poles. It's a city that looks like it's celebrating Christmas. We also had a Star of David."

But Bais-DiSessa said those other pieces weren't close enough to the crèche to be acceptable to the ACLU and regulations governing religious displays on public property. She said the city decided to move the scene to protect its integrity as a Christian display.

"The majority of the City Council are of the Christian faith. They love the nativity. It's difficult for them, too," she said. "We didn't want to make it secular. It would compromise the meaning — and this during the Christmas season."

If voters had passed the measure to place the crèche back on the City Hall grass on Tuesday, it would have created another complication: The display belongs to the clergy association. The group would have had to donate the nativity scene to the city, or the city would have had to buy another crèche, and laws prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used for religious artifacts, Bais-DiSessa said.

"The city doesn't own it anymore," she said. "We would have to ask someone else to donate another crèche and make it secular. It's tough." She said a lawsuit might be in the offing if the voters had approved the measure to return the display to public property.

The town of Berkley has about 15,500 residents; 11,596 of them are registered voters.

"It has divided our community, sadly. I just want everyone to realize that whatever decision they make, it will be difficult for everyone," said Bais-DiSessa, who added that she's neutral on the subject.