GIG HARBOR, Wash. - The city of Gig Harbor voted against displaying a nativity scene at Skansie Brothers Park this holiday season.
On Monday, the city council voted not to allow even a donated nativity scene on public property. The nativity scene would put the city at risk for a lawsuit, city administrator Ron Williams said.
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Williams, a former attorney, said the issue turned out to be more complex than city officials first thought.
"What some people misunderstand is, they think that a council member doesn't like Christmas," he says, "but it's an interplay between the freedom of religion and the establishment of a religion."
Supporters of the nativity scene argue it's free speech in a public forum but Williams says, attorneys see it as an overtly religious symbol.
"It also opens the doors for a lot of other displays that people may not like or want," he said.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom of Religion Foundation threatened legal action against Gig Harbor in 2016, citing that including the nativity scene at the public park was a "government sponsored display."
While supporters of the nativity scene argued that it was “freedom of speech in a public forum,” Williams said it’s a tricky legal area.
Council didn't display the nativity in 2016, considering it a "test run." Before Monday's announcement, the city held several meetings, heared dozens of opinions and consulted with attorneys, officials said.
"We can not volunteer for a lawsuit," Williams explains, "We need to be very careful."
Resident John Skansi set up the nativity scene at the park every year since 2008. Hundreds of residents have been a part of a protest to keep the nativity scene. Many people say it's part of the city's holiday tradition.
"We love the nativity and my heart is sad that they voted it down," resident Lori Overy said.
Gig Harbor native Justin Van Slyke agrees.
"I think it's pretty sad actually because it's such a tradition," he said.
According to officials, the issue over the nativity scene has been one of the most highly controversial topics the city has seen. The level of involvement "surprised" Williams, who's also proud that people in the city care.
Van Slyke is one of many residents who wants the controvery to go away.
"I think this whole thing has kind of blown out of proportion," he said.
The city will still display other holiday decorations, which will start going up in a few weeks.
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