Tom Halsey

COMMON GROUND - John Halsey, right, speaks to Select Board about the issue of holiday decorations on the Town Common.

READING – The Select Board voted Monday to place a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah on the Town Common next month.

If only it was that simple.

When the board debates raising taxes, the Town Hall meeting room is mostly empty. But with the possibility that the Town Common would have a menorah and not a Christmas tree, the room was packed, with some residents standing in the hallway straining to hear.

Twenty people spoke, including two former Select Board members. Speakers were interrupted, board members sparred, and resident Gina Castiello stood up holding a large Christian flag. The almost 2-hour meeting also included discussion of a mission statement for an inclusive government. The discussions could have gone on longer but for Town Meeting, which started its third night minutes after the board adjourned.

By a 3-2 vote, with Carlo Bacci and Chris Haley opposed, the board approved the following motion:

“Move to direct the Town Manager to cause a menorah and a Christmas tree to be placed on the Town Common for the winter/holiday season display to demonstrate the Select Board and the Town of Reading’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the community; and to place a sign near these items stating that these symbols are here to reflect the Town’s strong commitment to these purposes.”

The rare Monday Select Board meeting was added after the board voted 5-0 at its meeting last week to place a menorah on the Town Common starting on Dec. 18, the first night of Hanukkah. After chair Mark Dockser made the proposal, the board also discussed adding a Christmas tree at that meeting. But the discussion went from holiday traditions to Supreme Court decisions and after 45 minutes the board voted in support of the just the menorah.

That’s when the storm arrived, as residents reacted to a menorah but no Christmas tree. And it led to the board deciding to revisit their decision with Monday night’s meeting.

It started with an overview by Mark Dockser, which included mention of a one-minute time limit for speakers, which elicited the first grumbles of the night. While the room just wanted its Christmas tree, they first had to listen to some legal background.

Town counsel Bryan Bertram stressed two issues, the first amendment and the Establishment Clause. He started with the first amendment.

“The biggest takeaway from the first amendment is that if this is something the town wants to do, it’s certainly something the town can do under the first amendment. It has to be the town’s speech and it cannot be opening this up to everybody else or you risk opening the town’s property to any message that may come along,” said Bertram. “If there’s going to be any kind of holiday display, whether it be a menorah, a Christmas tree or anything else from any other faith or any other background or other contingent group, it has to be something that ideally belongs to the town, is done with town funds, is placed there because the town wants to spread its secular message of diversity and inclusion and something that’s maintained by the town.”

As for the Establishment Clause, the law basically prohibits government from “establishing” or sponsoring a religion. To some it boils down to the simple separation of church and state and its roots go back to the founding fathers.

“What’s really important is that we make sure that the message we send and the facts that are around stress this secular message that were not trying to promote a religion, we’re not trying to further a religion, were not in any way trying to aid a religion.”

Bertram said the board should make sure to include these thoughts in any language contained in their actions, and also include a sign on the common to explain to people why the town is doing it.

Then it was the residents’ turn.

“I wish to acknowledge two members of the Select Board who spoke at the Nov. 15 meeting when the idea of placing a single menorah on the Town Common was brought forth,” said Eileen Litterio. “These two members displayed virtues of fairness, equality, inclusivity, equity, unlike the chair whose sole intent was the addition of a menorah without any consideration for the thousands of Christians and others in this town. By ignoring the vast number of Christian children and families who experience great joy and peace in celebrating the birth of Christ at Christmas, the idea of erecting a menorah without equally advocating for a Christmas tree I feel was insensitive and discriminatory.”

Others continued with the theme.

“Why is it divisive for Christians to want to put up a Christmas tree? Just like all lives matter, so do all religions,” said Jennifer Traino. “I certainly have no problem at all with having a menorah. I respect all religions. However, the demonization of Christianity seems to be perfectly acceptable to the town. The hypocrisy is astounding. The majority of the Select Board sits here with their self-righteous delusion ignoring the fact they are violating the first amendment, acting like it’s okay because it’s Christianity. Ironically, all in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So please tell me, does diversity, equity and inclusion only apply to certain races and religions?”

About that 3-2 board vote. Bacci and Haley didn’t want to be painted as the holiday grinch. Their reasons for voting against the motion included what they felt was a door being opened that would lead to non-stop requests from groups to have their symbols displayed, leading to a legal bill they couldn’t swallow. Haley also questioned how diverse something was that only included two groups.

“To have me read a motion tonight that’s going to further the town’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the community, for me that’s excluding other members of the community. I don’t see how that including only two items out of 30 something other faiths among other things is inclusive to anything.

“I know you mentioned, Mark, this is going to be the final step tonight. In my opinion there’s going to be no final step. This is going to continue in perpetuity going forward with each and every random holiday, religious related or not. I don’t see it ever ending.”

Which led to Haley’s frustration at paying growing legal fees for the issue, again a feeling shared by Bacci.

“The fact that we have to have two lawyers here tonight and the town’s time and money being spent on this is absolutely absurd,” said Haley. “The amount of money that we spent by having them sit here and explain to us what just happened, we could have given money to that homeless guy who sleeps on the common. We could have provided a hotel for the guy for a month with the amount of money we just spent in the last five seconds of me talking. I don’t see how that’s being inclusive to anything.”

He knew his vote would leave him in the minority.

“I will be voting against [it] completely, only because I know somebody has to stick up for this town’s financial best interest and I know what’s coming. Because the two of them (attorney’s Bertram and Ivria Fried) are already sitting here right now and they’ll be at the next meeting, the next meeting, and everything else going forward. I don’t know how we get out of this cycle other than going with nothing. The holiday lights that were up, it’s been like that forever, before I even moved here. I never called them Christmas lights because they’re in an oak tree … I think that we can include either everything or nothing at all. That’s what my basis was last time. That’s where it still stands today.”

Moments later in what Dockser had called a “civil discussion” to that point, Karen Herrick via Zoom interrupted Haley leading to comments from across the room, and a retort from Haley.

“That is now the second meeting in a row that Karen has interrupted me while I’ve been speaking,” said Haley. “I don’t cut Karen off ever. Nor would I cut [off] anybody on this board, anybody in this room. I’ll speak to anyone at any time in any place. And just because somebody doesn’t like what I’m saying doesn’t give them the right to cut me off, because I will never cut them off.”

The option of rescinding last week’s vote and pretending it never happened didn’t sit well with Dockser.

“The question of ‘hey, should we rescind the vote,’ I think that there’s a lot of positive and inclusion that can take place here,” said Dockser. “I would feel very differently if we were to rescind that vote. I would feel that we have taken a humongous step backward that would cause division, would cause all sorts of issues. And I don’t want to think about it frankly. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s very much the wrong thing to do. From my perspective it would make sense to have a Christmas tree and a menorah, both on the common.”

And that’s the way it will be, starting with the tree lighting Sunday.

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