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City to discuss religious symbol displays

Amid arrival of the holiday season, the Dickinson City Commission is tentatively slated to review a policy on displaying religious symbols on city property during a Dec. 6 meeting at City Hall.

"The Human Relations Commission has been pondering this subject for some time," City Administrator Shawn Kessel said during a Nov. 12 meeting. "They tried to tackle the idea of diversity when it comes to displaying religious symbols."

Kessel cited the policy's review as a "proactive policy."

Presently, there are a few religious displays on city property, including a Christmas Star in Rocky Butte Park and street lamp displays, and discussion of the matter is being done to prepare ahead, said City Attorney Matt Kolling.

"We want to sort of get out ahead of the game on this and make sure that the city has some guidelines in place for how to deal with these things before they become political issues and contentious issues," Kolling said.

The topic is generally regulated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Kolling said.

"It's not something that the city can sort of make up its own rules," Kolling said. "The basic standards are there can't be an expressed advocacy of a particular religious viewpoint. The Constitution forbids governments from explicitly endorsing one religion over another and that's the general standards that the city's going to be held to."

The Human Relations Commission recommends those interested in displaying on city property to fill out an application with the city. City staff would then consult with the city attorney and must "be careful not to endorse a specific religious belief or appear to favor certain religious expressions by picking and choosing displays based on thematic content."

"Outside groups should not be allowed to design or put up their own public displays on city property," according to a Human Relations Commission memo. "All displays on city property, whether religious or not, should be city displays and not those of other groups in the community."

Kolling said the policy is being discussed to find a "broad statement of guidance."

"This is intended to be sort of broad guidance and not something that is being written into ordinance or being written with sort of legally binding ramifications," Kolling said.

Displays of religious symbols is an area of law that is "ever-changing," Kolling said.

"It's something that the city is going to have to continue to revisit as new cases come out and the Human Relations Commission will have to revisit too," Kolling said. "There's not really a good, settled law on that issue."

City Public Information Officer Bill Fahlsing said a preliminary agenda for a Dec. 6 City Commission includes discussion of the topic.