Requests to set up a Nativity scene at Dunwoody City Hall resulted in a new policy that would ban all religious symbols from most areas of city buildings. Doing so would ensure the city is not accused of endorsing one religion over another and possibly violating the Constitution, according to the city attorney.
“This is still a hotly contested issue,” City Attorney Bill Riley told the mayor and City Council at its Oct. 14 meeting. “I drafted a policy that steers us away from all that … from the endorsement of religion debate. I don’t want us to get in trouble on an endorsement issue.”
Riley explained the city recently received requests to put up a Nativity scene at City Hall. A Nativity scene is a Christian symbol depicting the birth of Jesus. Riley did not say who made the request at the meeting. The city spokesperson declined to identify who made the request.
The policy would ban Christian, Jewish and Muslim symbols from the common areas of City Hall and other city buildings. Employees would be able to keep religious symbols on their desks or in their offices.
The policy is expected to be voted on at the Oct. 28 meeting. City Councilmember John Heneghan asked the council to delay the vote on the new policy for two weeks to allow feedback from residents.
Mayor Denis Shortal expressed his disappointment that the policy was needed.
“Sometimes I think we over-legislate the world a little bit,” he said.
“I understand the pros and cons, and I understand today’s world. Sometimes it gets a little much when we have to sit here and write something like this,” Shortal said. “I guess it’s the way things are today.”
Shortal continued, saying he “grew up in a different world” where people could put up a display “and nobody would say yay and nobody would say nay.”
“But if this is something we have to have … I’m not going to sit here and die on this hill or anything else,” he said.
Besides Nativity scenes, the city policy would specifically prohibit displays with menorahs; drawings of Jesus or Mohammad; the Bible or Quran; the Star of David; a cross or crucifix; and the Star and Crescent, considered the symbol of Islam.
Decorations that are allowed for displays according to the policy would be flowers, greenery, wreaths, holiday trees, bells, snowmen, winter scenes, Santa Claus, animals, flags and Pilgrims.
This is the first year requests have been made to put up any religious-themed decorations at City Hall, said city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher. City personnel moved into the building at 4800 Ashford-Dunwoody Road at the beginning of 2018. The previous City Hall was tucked in an office park on Perimeter Center East.
Religious symbols on government property have been debated for decades including in the courts, Riley said.
The Supreme Court has ruled in some cases that municipalities with holiday displays including a Nativity scene violated the constitution because they appeared to endorse a religion. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment bans government from endorsing religion.
In other cases, lower courts have ruled religious symbols like the Ten Commandments can legally be displayed in a courthouse as a historical display.