Local News

AP council apologizes for religious decorations ban

AVON PARK - A village of Christmas trees on Main Street was a good idea, but banning religious decorations from the Candy Cane Lane display didn't sit well with the Christian community. At its Thursday meeting, the city council faced a standing-room-only crowd that opposed the ban on religious decorations from the Christmas tree display effort that is sponsored by the City of Avon Park, the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce and the Main Street Community Redevelopment Agency. The plan calls for 40 businesses to decorate and display an artificial tree along the winding section of sidewalk on Main Street between Forest and Butler avenues. According to a flier promoting the effort, the trees should be decorated and in place by 9 a.m., Dec. 2, which is the day of the city's Christmas parade.
In underlined lettering the flier states the trees must be: "tastefully decorated" and "no religious decorations." After about 35 businesses paid the $5 fee to participate in the project, some business people and citizens took exception with the religious decoration ban and turned out for the council meeting. Before any comments from the citizens, Mayor Sharon Schuler made a motion for the city council to override its own decision, while sitting as the CRA board, concerning the decorations. "I would like for our business people and our Christian community to place on their trees, that will be in the mall, whatever they choose as long as we are respectful of each other and we are respectful of the season." Councilman Garrett Anderson recommended removing the wording "no religious decorations" from the flier promoting the decorating effort. Councilman Parke Sutherland explained that when the issue came to the CRA board he mistakenly believed the doctrine addressing the "separation of church and state" applied to this display of Christmas trees. "I am glad to say that I was wrong," he said. "Had I known that at the time there certainly would have been a greater discussion here among the council people sitting as the CRA board. "There was a clear voice from everybody I heard from, without question, that everybody felt it was a poor idea and poor choice." Sutherland apologized for his misunderstanding. Anderson also apologized stating that it slipped by him. Deputy Mayor Brenda Giles said that when the issue came to the city council 40 business people had already agreed to the requirements. Giles and Schuler also offered their apology on the matter. George Hall addressed the council saying he came as a spiritual leader of a congregation in town. "We appreciate you listening to us," he said. "It was something that needed to be discussed because there is a war on Christmas regardless of what religious background you are. This is something that ought to bring us together." The crowd applauded after Hall's remarks. Jeff Williams, one of the directors of the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce, said there are people who are very upset about this. He thanked the council for changing the wording in the tree requirements. "We do support this now," Williams said. "I was here tonight to tell you to take our name off of that. In the event we have a positive vote, go ahead and leave the commerce's name on the flier." The crowd applauded after Williams' remarks. Council unanimously approved removing the "no religious decorations" wording from the flier and also unanimously approved Schuler's motion to only specify that the trees to be tastefully decorated. mvalero@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5826