Pawtucket's creche shifts to private park

There willm be a Nativity scene in downtown Pawtucket, R.I., during this Christmas season, regardless of how the United States Supreme Court rules on the creche case.

The creche, originally purchased with city funds and located on city property , was sold to a private committee and, for the past two Christmases, has been situated in a private park close to City Hall.

Even so, the court's decision, expected next month, could affect hundreds of other cities across the country.

Two lower courts ruled in 1981 and 1982 that the Nativity scene erected with city funds for more than 40 years violated the First Amendment's principle of separation of church and state.

While there have been other court battles in municipalities in Florida, South Dakota, Texas, and Colorado, the Pawtucket case has attracted the most attention.

One elderly gentleman sitting at the bus stop in front of Hodgson Park - where the creche will be in two months' time - says the Christmas display ''is good for the people. It brings 'em down here and that's what we need. I think the whole thing's going to peter out. They (the Supreme Court) will put off a decision until after the first of the year.''

And a mother waiting with her teen-age daughter agrees: ''It [the creche] is not doing anyone any harm. It's the one thing Pawtucket has going for it. Take it away and what do we have?'' the woman asks.

''It's something we look forward to every year,'' the young girl adds. ''It's for the people of Pawtucket to come down and see the pretty lights and listen to the music - it's part of Christmas. If they (the plaintiffs) don't want to look at it, they don't have to. And it's not converting anyone,'' she says emphatically.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought the original suit against the City of Pawtucket in December 1980 on behalf of four local residents.

In an interview at the ACLU's Providence office, Steve Brown, who describes himself as a ''lifetime ACLU-er,'' says the creche is actually part of a much larger Christmas display set up every year in downtown Pawtucket. The whole display includes Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus, a wishing well, a Christmas tree, and cut-out Walt Disney characters.

Mr. Brown argues that the creche, ''next to the cross, is a very potent religious symbol'' and should not be included in a city display because it ''damages religious freedoms.'' At the same time, many people, he says, feel the Nativity is degraded by the secular elements surrounding the scene.

Brown says that at one point during the court battles, the city suggested the display was needed for economic reasons - to bring people into the city to shop. ''This was offensive to many Christians. It degraded the religiosity of the Nativity scene,'' Brown says.

''Curiously,'' Brown says, ''the same First Amendment principle protects private individuals erecting such displays on their own property. They could flood the city's lawns with Nativity scenes if they wanted to.''

Indeed, after the 1981 US District Court ruling that the city's creche was unconstitutional, the city sold the display.

Pawtucket Mayor Henry S. Kinch, sitting behind his desk with his shirt sleeves rolled up, says the situation is ''very simple.''

''Christmas is a legal holiday, and because of this we display all the symbols and trappings of that holiday. The creche is a symbol of that holiday. And you can't have a legal holiday and illegal symbols.''

Mayor Kinch maintains the Nativity scene is not promoting religion because it is a ''very small part of a 40,000-square-foot display. If we put it up in the middle of July - I'd say we were promoting religion. But this has been the focal point of our community for over 50 years. It's part of our heritage.''

The ACLU ''is trying to wring out every ounce of religion in daily life,'' the mayor says. ''You just can't do that. You can't ignore religion.''

But Brown of the ACLU says the organization ''is not trying to take away religion.''

He suggests, however, that since 65 percent of Rhode Islanders are Roman Catholic, ''there is less sensitivity to separation of church and state here than in other, more pluralistic parts of the country.'' In other cities, he says , there is not such an uproar.

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