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Chambersburg, Pa. council hears feedback on nativity scene

December 14, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- A half-dozen people offered comments Monday about the nativity scene removed from Memorial Square in late November after the Chambersburg Borough Council voted unanimously to ban displays there.

The council's meeting Monday evening was its first since the controversial decision.

Borough resident Robert Wall questioned why citizens weren't given an opportunity to vote or weigh in on the matter.

"Why wasn't it tabled until council could notify citizens?" Wall asked.

On Nov. 23, Carl Silverman of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc. asked to place a memorial to atheist veterans on the square. The council responded by permitting only flowers and American flags at the fountain.

The decision meant Norland Garden Club needed to move its creche, which was moved from the center fountain area to in front of a church on the southwest quadrant of the square.

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Borough Solicitor Thomas Finucane told the small crowd gathered Monday that the council was facing three problems. First, 1980s court rulings determined that a creche displayed by itself on government property gives the appearance of government-sanctioned religion. Second, if one viewpoint is permitted in a "public forum" like the square, others must be given a chance to be represented as well.

"You can't discriminate against other viewpoints," Finucane said.

The Ku Klux Klan has been active in town in the past and could come forward with a request to display a burning cross, he said.

"It's not in any way the town council is against the creche," Finucane said.

He said the third issue concerns a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision regarding a cross in the Mojave Desert could affect how and when lawsuits can be filed in instances like the one affecting Chambersburg.

"If that happens, the town council can re-visit that decision," Finucane said.

Mercersburg, Pa., resident Lisa Blackstock organized rallies on Memorial Square to protest council's decision. She said Monday that 200 people turned out the first week and about 50 the next week.

"I thought there'd be unity and the churches would come together," Blackstock said. "They did not."

She said some people "seem happy" with the "compromise" to put the creche in front of the church, but she thinks the display is hidden. She called obscuring the view of the creche symbolic.

Prayer led Blackstock to decide to stop holding rallies, she said.

"I'll go somewhere they want to keep Christ," Blackstock said.

Scott Fickes, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said town leaders and Christians should not fight among themselves because of what happened after a non-resident's request.

"I did not serve my country to come home and be terrorized by someone so many counties away," Fickes said of Silverman, who lives in Camp Hill, Pa.

Fickes compared Silverman's actions to "a game of chess in the dark."

"This is my community. These are my neighbors," Fickes said. "These are my friends and family being affected."

Wade Burkholder told the council members he previously served as a St. Thomas Township, Pa., supervisor and could sympathize with the criticism being directed at them. He commended the council for doing what it had to do.

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