An eight day Menorah, a one day Menorah, no Menrorah…. The Merry Christmas sign is up, the Merry Christmas sign in down, ……wait it’s back up again… what happened to the holiday spirit in North Andover?
By: Tom Duggan – December, 2009
It all started with a policy change limiting displays on the Town Common to one day and ended in what seemed like a Town ready to wipe Christmas and Chanukah from the town.
For months the Board of Selectmen in North Andover debated a proposed new policy of restricting gatherings and public displays on the Town Common to one day.
During those discussions the public was assured that exceptions could be made at the discretion of the Board of Selectmen. But when the policy was passed in September, no language was inserted into the final wording of the policy to make such exceptions. Absent the language for exceptions to the policy, the Board of Selectmen had set themselves up for controversy and bad press that spread throughout the country.
Selectmen said that the new policy was enacted because they wanted to preserve the integrity of the common and avoid unnecessary damage to the green space with multi-day events and fairs.
Limiting the Menorah display
Each year, the Board of Selectmen in North Andover routinely approved a one day request for a Menorah display without any problems or controversies. And when the Rabbi Bronstein of Chabad House in Andover asked for the Menorah to be displayed for all eight days of Chanukah last year, the Board of Selectmen approved his request.
But, when Rabbi Bronstein submitted the same request this year the Selectmen refused, saying the new one-day display policy restricts the use of the common to one-day only and revealed that no exceptions could be made.
The board did approve the Menorah for one day on the common after his original request was amended by the board. But, Rabbi Bronstein did not ask for the amendment, in fact he told the board that night that “this was going backwards” and with the new restrictions said that he might not place the Menorah on the common at all this year.
Some North Andover residents were outraged saying that the Board of Selectmen had “hijacked the Town Common”. The vote sent shock waves through the town as Rabbi Bronstein was clearly upset by the new policy and the board’s actions as were other North Andover residents in the audience who spoke in favor of the Menorah.
Selectman Bill Gordon did make a motion to support the Rabbi and asked the board to make an exception to allow the Menorah for eight days, but not one member of the board would even second the motion for a vote.
Those selectmen that refused to support the Gordon’s motion to grant an exception to the Rabbi were: Rosemary Smedile, Rick Nardella, Tracy Watson and Dan Lanen.
Selectmen also revealed Monday night that because of this new policy, there will no longer be a Christmas tree display on the common because that would also exceed the board’s new one-day rule.
“There were rules in place and we couldn’t just change them, but we did not take this into account and we need to look at the policy again,” said Chairman of the Board Tracy Watson.
Watson said she was proud of the fact that she voted to allow the Menorah on the common for eight days last year and found it disconcerting that she could not vote that way again because of the policy.
“We are a policy making board and we had to stick to our own policy.” Watson said defending the board’s actions.
After the meeting however, Selectmen who spoke with the Valley Patriot on and off the record said they were hoping to correct the problem before the next meeting on December 7th.
Chairman Tracy Watson told The Valley Patriot that she was “very concerned now” about the affect of the new policy on the town. Directly after the meeting she says she contacted the town attorneys to figure out how to adjust the new policy to accommodate holiday displays and other exceptions that were not put into the new law.
Watson told Tom Duggan on the Paying Attention! Radio Program, on WCAP that the Selectmen did not second Gordon’s motion because it was their intention to “fix a failed policy”. She said that the board wanted some time to “talk to Town Counsel” and amend the one-day policy at that next meeting to allow the Menorah before Chanukah began.
Lack of communication and understanding
Before the Selectmen could even meet with Town Counsel to amend the policy, Rabbi Bronstein contacted a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law and has sued many other communities for their restrictive policies.
This sparked further controversy and admittedly an overreaction by the Town of North Andover. After receiving a proposed lawsuit by the Rabbi, Town Manager Mark Rees told the North Andover Firefighters that they could not put the “Merry Christmas” sign on the fire station as they had for the last 30 years.
Rabbi Bronstein adamantly denies asking that the “Merry Christmas” sign be taken down. In fact, upon hearing about the sign situation, he went down to the fire station to tell firefighters that he was not opposed to the “Merry Christmas” sign and it was never his intent to have it taken down.
He says that the copy of the proposed federal lawsuit was to show the town what the constitutional law says regarding freedom of expression and assembly, and that he believed the new policy violated his constitutional rights.
The lawsuit was to seek an injunction from the court to halt the new one-day policy, he said, not to remove any Christmas decorations.
Nevertheless, the removal of the Christmas sign from the fire station sparked outrage by residents of the town and resulted in headlines across the country.
A proposed lawsuit
Board Chairman Watson spoke with Tom Duggan on his Saturday Paying Attention! show on WCAP and told Duggan that the proposed lawsuit seemed like “blackmail” and she believed that the Rabbi should have worked directly with the town instead of hiring a lawyer.
The lawsuit, (which was never filed in court), was dated December 1, 2009, over one week after the Selectmen’s meeting denying the Menorah for eight days.
Nowhere in the court papers does the Rabbi ask for any holiday decorations to be taken down but Watson and the board said they were “terrified” that the mention of the “Merry Christmas” sign in the legal papers they received could result in problems for the town’s holiday displays in a future court battle.
The lawsuit in part states:
“The Town of North Andover freely decorates its buildings and streets with Christmas decorations and symbols of long-term placement, the fire station is emblazoned with the legend “Merry Christmas,” a “sign” which will, apparently, adorn the building for nearly 30 days. In addition, town streets are adorned with white lights and wreaths. Public schools and buildings are adorned with candy canes and other such decorations, all of which have been in place since November and which will, apparently, adorn these public spaces for more than 30 days. Notwithstanding repeated requests by the Plaintiff that it be allowed to express itself in the public space, the town of North Andover has declined to conform its conduct to constitutional requirements.”
In his demand to the court, the Rabbi asks: “That the Town of North Andover, following a hearing on short order of notice, be enjoined from interfering in the Plaintiff’s eight day display.”
Rabbi Bronstein told the Valley Patriot that he was not asking that the Town of North Andover take down any Christmas signs or wreaths, but that the Town recognize that many Christmas decorations were being displayed for over 30 days, and he could not have the Menorah for more than one day. He said that such a policy violated the constitution and he wanted the Town Selectman to understand that.
Within a few short days the Selectmen and Town Manager, Mark Rees ordered the firefighter to put the “Merry Christmas” sign back up, anticipating a resolution to the Menorah controversy.
Finally, on Friday December 4th, the Selectman met and changed the one-day display policy and granted the Menorah display for the eight days of Chanukah. Rabbi Bronstein could not attend the Friday night meeting as it was Shabbat and felt slighted by the fact that the Selectman held the meeting on a Friday night when he could not attend.
However, the Rabbi did release a statement which reads, in part;
“On behalf of Chabad Lubavitch of Merrimack Valley, I express my gratitude to the town of North Andover for the amendment of the town common use policy so as to bring that policy into conformity with the requirements of the United States Constitution. We look forward to placing our Menorah on the North Andover town common during the eight days of Chanukah, and to sharing the message of that symbol of light with the entire community.”
The Rabbi was clearly upset about the situation and the actions of the Selectman, further stating, “While we welcome the action of the Town of North Andover last Friday evening in correcting its policy, we question the apparent need of several members of Board of Selectmen to make comments disparaging the constitutional rights of all Americans to exercise their rights to seek such redress.”
The Rabbi was also upset about public comments made accusing him of trying to take candy canes from children in the schools.
“We also question,” he continued, “the apparent need of several members of that Board to suggest that I, or my organization, or my attorney, ever demanded that the town remove any holiday signage from the North Andover Fire Station, or ever demanded ‘having the candy canes taken away from the kids’”.
The Chanukah lighting celebration will be on the North Andover Common on Thursday December 17th at 7pm. Meanwhile on December 22nd, a live crèche will also be displayed on the North Andover Town Common. School Committee member Karin Rhoten petitioned and was approved by the Board of Selectman to have a crèche display for one day on the common. A crèche is a manger scene and this one will be with live people and animals.
EDITORIAL: The Holidays in North Andover
North Andover Celebrates Menorah Lighting.