City Permits Nativity Display on Common

A nativity scene may adorn the Cambridge Common again this year after the Cambridge City Council last night voted to allow religious symbols and decorations to be placed in the park.

After an emotional debate that occasionally included personal attacks and obscenities, the council voted 5-4 to allow religious displays in the city-owned Cambridge Common if they are privately sponsored and erected.

The new ordinance provides that a portion of the public park be set aside permanently for displays sponsored by individuals or groups of any religious or ethnic background.

The ordinance was passed as a substitute to a proposal sponsored by five of the nine council members. Under the wording of the originally proposed ordinance it was unclear whether the city manager was mandated to erect the displays.

Several councilors strongly opposed the original ordinance, charging that it violated the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

"I don't think the city government ought to be in the business of telling people what to believe which is exactly what we're doing if we endorse [the original] resolution," said City Councilor David E. Sullivan, who proposed the substitute resolution which was eventually passed by a one vote majority.

Councilor Saundra Graham, who was one of the five sponsors of the original ordinance, said she had thought the ordinance would be different when she agreed to sponsor it.

"My understanding of the order was that it would allow any religious group to put displays on the Common," said Graham.

She said, "The city should not be in the business of setting up any religion."

The civil rights counsel of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'Nai B'Rith, Sally J. Greenberg, last night testified against city support for a creche.

"Our interests are not anti-religious," said Greenberg, who directs the regional office of the Jewish advocacy group.

"One of the fundamental principles of the Bill of Rights in this country is that religion is kept private," she said.

Greenberg, who was invited by Councilor Alice K. Wolf to testify, complained last year when the nativity scene, depicting the story of Jesus's birth in a Bethlehem manger 2000 years ago, was placed in the Common.

The city placed a public disclaimer near the model after Greenberg and the ADL protested.

The city owns the creche which includes nearly 12 figurines.

Councilors Alfred E. Vellucci and Thomas Danehy responded to Greenberg's testimony with emotional, sometimes angry, statements.

"I don't think a nativity scene is a slap in the face to any groups or religions," Danehy said. "It's to celebrate the coming of the 25th of the year, it's for kids."

Both Danehy and Vellucci said they thought Wolf was making trouble by bringing up the issue.

"I think it took a nit-picker to bring this up," said Danehy.

When Wolf said she did not think questioning government promotion of religious practices was nit-picking, Danehy slammed his fist down and shouted, "Bullshit it's not."

Councilor William H. Walsh attacked Greenberg for saying that the city might face a lawsuit if it enacted the ordinance.

"I find it offensive that someone from the ADL comes in and tells me that if we put up the symbols of our beliefs and heritage we're going to get a lawsuit," he said.

Walsh and Vellucci each offered to pay $60 for the erection of the nativity scene in the Common.

Walsh said later he was surprised by the issue and thought the debate was offensive.

"Feelings got pretty intense," said Councilor Sheila T. Graham.