This is the ninth year park district workers have constructed Santa’s house on the Riverwalk. It’s joined for the second year by a menorah, donated by the Chabad Jewish Center. Last year, the Jewish group said Santa represented the Christian holiday, and they wanted the Jewish faith represented on the Riverwalk.
At first, Naperville Park District officials refused, saying it would violate an ordinance prohibiting the installation of any religious symbol from an individual on the Riverwalk.
After some debate, the park board accepted the menorah as a donation, and put up the Jewish display.
This year workers put up a nativity scene. Parishioners from Saints Peter and Paul Parish offered the Park District the crèche as a donation, and the park board accepted.
“I was very impressed last year when our local rabbi donated a menorah to the village to display on the Riverwalk,” said Father Thomas Milota, Pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Parish. “I thought it was a great testament of faith, because the people of Naperville are people of great faith. I thought it was appropriate as well that we have a symbol of our Christian faith.”
Federal law actually allows for religious holiday symbols in public places. A series of court decisions say religious symbols can be displayed on public property as long as secular symbols of the holiday are also displayed nearby.
The park board says the Riverwalk decorations are meant to echo the feeling of celebration surrounding the December holidays.
“If it was a religious display that would not be ok. However, it is a cultural display,” said Park Board President Mike Reilly. “It’s completely up to the Park District to accept any of these gifts that are offered to us, and it is up to the board to vote and make them part of the display.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) even weighed in on the Riverwalk displays. The ACLU of Illinois says as long as the Park District provides equal access to all religious groups’ symbols, the city meets free speech in public forum guidelines.
“The public space adjacent to the Naperville Riverwalk provides ample space for many different private symbolic exhibits to be displayed at the same time,” the ACLU said in a statement to NCTV.
Naperville Residents and visitors says they welcome the Riverwalk symbols…all of them.
“I think it’s beautiful, as long as we don’t overlook it and over read into the representation of the symbols,” said Naperville visitor Mary Scotti. “Just enjoy the season, whether it be the menorah or the nativity scene, I think it’s lovely and not to over politicize it.”
“I think it’s excellent,” said Naperville resident Jane Bodine. “Our world is heterogeneous, so it needs to be heterogeneous.”
“I think it’s nice we can all come together and co–exist,” said Naperville resident Colin Feely.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with religious expressions,” said Naperville resident Junaid Rahman. “It’s good to have diversity in religion and thought, and I don’t think it should be regulated at all.”
The park board says it will evaluate future holiday display donations for the Riverwalk on a case-by-case basis.
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