Borough of Chambersburg knows nothing of atheist group's complaint

December 23, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. -- A day after Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc. (PAN) of Harrisburg, Pa., announced a complaint against the Borough of Chambersburg, borough officials said they have no knowledge of the challenge.

"I can't react to anything I have not received," Borough Council President Bill McLaughlin said.

The dispute revolves around PAN's request to honor athiest soldiers with a display in Memorial Square. The council decided to ban all displays there, and a nativity scene was removed.

On Dec. 7, PAN filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission alleging the borough discriminated against PAN because of its religious position.

McLaughlin said in 18 years on the borough council, he has only known of a handful of complaints against the borough that have gone through the PHRC, most of which involved borough personnel. The complaint filed by PAN would be the first of its kind, he said.


PAN's complaint alleges the borough denied it public accommodation for a display on the square based on the organization's religious beliefs, said Shannon Powers, director of communications for PHRC.

The complaint has yet to be finalized and no investigation into PAN's allegations has been launched, she said.

The November council vote to prohibit all displays at the fountain in Memorial Square precipitated PAN's complaint, said Carl Silverman, member of PAN's board of directors.

The council unanimously overturned its 14-year-old policy of allowing "approved" decorations and those "established by long tradition" at the fountain after PAN requested permission to place a sign honoring atheist soldiers on the fountain, according to borough records.

Fearing that PAN's display would clutter the fountain or lead to displays by other controversial organizations, McLaughlin said he and the council voted to end those fears by prohibiting all decorations at the fountain.

"I feel this is the only decision we could have made," McLaughlin said previously. "We were advised by our solicitor that the Supreme Court ruled that it is all or nothing."

"The timing of this is questionable with this happening right after our application," Silverman said. "Clearly, this is viewpoint discrimination and I feel we could win this in court."

While PAN was prevented from displaying its sign, a nativity scene that stood for more than 20 years had to be removed by its owner, the Norland Garden Club.

Doing nothing about the council's decision was not an option for PAN, which announced details of its legal action on live television Tuesday evening, Silverman said.

"We have been accused of just wanting the crèche (nativity scene) out of the square, which is not the case," he said. "If we do nothing, it looks as if we are satisfied with the borough's decision, which we are not."

On PAN's public television show, "The Free Thought Forum," PAN President Steve Neubauer and Silverman discussed the complaint.

An archived copy of the program is available online at

McLaughlin said he does not anticipate the borough council will discuss the complaint until its solicitor has been notified in writing and given time to advise council members on the issue.

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