The city of Centerville will hold a forum Monday, Dec. 16 addressing the recent controversy involving a nativity scene that was moved from the town square to a privately owned property.
City administrator Jason Fraser said talks started in the spring with a group of citizens, specifically pastor Brad Dittmer, Dr. Brad McConville and the chamber director, about including a nativity scene as part of the chamber’s display.
Centerville hasn’t had a nativity scene since the mid-1990s. The last time an actual physical nativity was set up, it was moved to a local church after someone had stolen baby Jesus.
Fraser said the conversations were informal.
“When that was asked, I looked and I was initially hesitant just because I know this is a bit of a hot-button issue,” Fraser said. “I looked at what had been decided before and, when I say decided before, I mean the two Supreme Court cases and the outcomes of those.”
Fraser said the idea passed the initial test because the city is not part of the chamber’s decision for what it’s Christmas group does. And, because the nativity scene would be part of a larger display, it seemed fine.
However, Fraser said a few things changed from those initial conversations to November, when the display was constructed.
The group grew to include more people to secure funding for the nativity scene. The chamber also scaled back its holiday display, Fraser said.
With no formal approval prior to the display and the nativity scene being the more dominant aspect, Fraser said he and the mayor contacted the chamber to see if it could get ahold of the people initially involved to have a discussion.
Councilman Jay Dillard brought a complaint to Fraser, who said the complaint was from either an individual or a group. He assured The Iowa Standard the complaint came from someone local.
“I took (Dillard) as the messenger,” Fraser said. “But, he may be a part of that group, I’m not sure. It was more on the lines that it shouldn’t be on city property. The suggestion was that they would likely put alternative displays up in the same space, which would have to be allowed to keep it neutral.”
The other aspect of the complaint was a potential lawsuit.
Fraser never reached out to a lawyer for any advice.
“The relocation of this was actually intended to be a compromise or a consideration,” he said. “It was more of a ‘would you be kind enough to move it somewhere else so we don’t have to deal with any sort of legal ramifications or anything like that.'”
Fraser said there was a two-week conversation taking place between Dittmer, McConville and the chamber director.
“We identified a private property that it could be relocated to that was still prominent, actually with higher traffic flows and more visibility, that we thought might be a place we could move it to now that we had someone come forward who was frustrated with it,” Fraser said.
The city talked with pastor Dittmer first. Then, about a week into it, Dr. McConville was included in the discussion.
“It got to the point that they said, ‘yeah, we’re OK with moving it,'” Fraser said.
But the group lacked the volunteers necessary to move the nativity scene. Fraser said he helped organize that, and on Monday, Dec. 9, the display was moved.
That move upset many of the residents of the town, including Pastor Tony Angran, whose church kicked in $2,500 for the nativity scene.
“I don’t think that smaller group of individuals really got the message out to their group because it sounds like there were probably a lot of entities that helped purchase that,” Fraser said. “As far as the city’s interaction, it was with pastor Dittmer and Dr. McConville.”
Fraser said the city needs to do a better job moving forward when it comes to approving requests by the chamber.
“They’ve been an entity that we don’t really give them individual approval of their events,” he said. “Their function is tourism and beautification of the square area. We let them have their holiday display, they do pancake days, there’s no individual approval, no formal approval, and it goes on every year.”
Because the chamber director was involved in the discussions, Fraser said he assumed the nativity scene would be part of the larger chamber display.
“It may have been a faulty assumption in our initial discussion,” he said. “Maybe that warranted more inspection for the initial discussion on what could be and could not be done.”
The square is broken into quadrants, Fraser said, with a sidewalk that further splits it into eighths. The nativity scene was on the east side of the square. Fraser said he thinks there were a few lighted trees that were pretty small, “pretty minimal,” just to try to fill space.
The opposite side of the square has the Santa house, which is where the chamber hosts its annual Santa visit.
“The ultimate goal was that we don’t want it to necessarily be a distraction,” Fraser said. “And we as a city don’t want to have to engage with lawyers to be able to function. I think in discussing this with the people who were there, our goal was to not have it be a distraction and still allow it to be prominently displayed.”
The goal, Fraser said, was to work collaboratively, not to have the city tell them to pick it up and move it.
“That was not the intent or how it played out, even though I think that perception was there,” Fraser said. “It was not something where, on Monday the ninth, the city got up and the city moved it. We had discussions for two weeks and we got volunteers put together to move it.”
Since the display was moved, Fraser said he’s “had a few calls.”
“And I know that there’s a lot going on on Facebook, but generally I’m trying to avoid Facebook just because it’s a great tool to reach out to people, but there generally aren’t positive comments and it seems like the commenters when you do look at it, are bickering back and forth and it’s from a lot of outside parties probably on both sides of the issue. I’ve received a decent amount of feedback from local citizens and I’d say that’s a mixed bag.”
When asked how the city would determine whether something is “offensive” or not, Fraser said that will likely be the beginning of Monday’s discussion.
“We need to formalize our discussion and I think there are probably a lot of viewpoints that have to come into that,” Fraser said. “We have to formalize how we approve the use of that space or disapprove use of that space.”
Fraser said the Iowa League of Cities has a lot of guides for situations like these, and Centerville will look heavily at what they’ve done.
“I think Monday night is going to be a chance for the community to state how they feel about it,” Fraser said. “I don’t know who all the people will be who will be there. It’s not a huge space. Hopefully, there will be a good balance of views that come out and it’s something the city can take forward.”
“Our goal was to be able to keep a peaceful area,” Fraser said. “A lot of my concerns with that is a comment I saw in response to an article, ‘nothing that a match and some gasoline can’t fix.’ I want to keep that type of conversation out of it because I don’t think that it really has a place in this discussion.”