Port Washington News received a number of inquiries concerning the kind of decorations appropriate for Port's public facilities during the recent holiday season. In particular, the concern seemed to revolve not around the fact that certain decorations were found to be either offensive or contrary to the concept of the separation of church and state, but were more directed toward the fact that there were little or no decorations, which seemed to deprive various cultural and ethnic groups of the richness and special meaning of the season.
Some library patrons requested a crèche be exhibited in the library. The request was made courteously and in support of the idea that similar requests from other groups should be entertained. In past years, there was a display of menorahs and Christmas trees at the library during the holiday season. The policy committee of the library board discussed the request and also reviewed the school board's policy, which does not allow religious displays.
At last October's board meeting about a half-dozen library patrons spoke about the issue. After a lengthy discussion, the board decided that the season would be marked with a winter theme of snowflakes and greenery. The decorations were handled by the Port Washington Garden Club, led by its president, Ulla Nettesheim.
Library Director Nancy Curtin pointed out to Port News that the board felt that the library's books, films and recordings reflect the diverse cultures and religious beliefs of the community more accurately and inclusively than a decorative display. Curtin said community input is welcome and that the library board meets every third Wednesday of the month at 7:30 p.m.
Post offices, including Port's, have come under any number of regulations and policies that determine the type of decorations, which may appear. As a public facility, the Postal Service tries to avoid the appearance of favoring any particular religion. Symbols identified with a particular religion, such as nativity scenes, crosses or the Star of David are not permitted on postal property.
Port News spoke with Mr. Bob Trombley, the communications program specialist for New York Metro Public Affairs, who said that postal employees are encouraged to use expressions such as Season's Greetings and Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah. He provided Port News a list of displays permissible in public post offices which includes: stamp art, evergreen trees bearing non-religious ornaments, menorahs (when displayed in conjunction with other seasonal matter), wreaths, holly, Santa Claus, colored lights and Kwanzaa symbols. In his time in public affairs, Trombley said he had no recollection of any protests or any other related difficulties at New York metro post offices relating to holiday decorations.
Port resident Patricia Mahon of Manorhaven said that she was pleased that holiday decorations were not a matter of controversy. She said everyone's beliefs should be taken into account and presented in a balanced fashion, if any form of religious symbolism be displayed.
Port News spoke to Ros Drukker, a local real estate agent and 10-year Port resident, who feels that society is getting overly hung-up on being politically correct. Drukker said, 'let it roll' i.e., meaning let's encourage the showing of religious symbols, because each symbol represents something very important to other groups in our community. It was Port Washington's diversity that attracted Drukker to Port. Her children are encouraged in their home to display and learn the meaning of these symbols as a means of gaining greater understanding and exposure to other religious and ethnic cultures.
Roy Smitheimer, executive director of the Greater Port Washington Business Improvement District (BID) offered a detailed commentary to Port News on holiday decorations over the years. For many years, as late as the 1970s and 80s, the Port Washington Chamber of Commerce used to celebrate the holidays by having a special ceremony to light a Christmas tree and a Menorah that stood side-by-side that the chamber had installed on public space within the community. The chamber also raised funds and leased decorations, which were mounted on the utility poles along Port Washington Boulevard and Main Street. However, the cost of leasing and paying the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) for the electric fees became prohibitive.
In 1991, the chamber formed a subcommittee within its ranks to study a more cost effective way of bringing the holiday message to the public. The committee recommended banners with the message of 'happy holidays,' which were then mounted on the poles instead. However, the overwhelming majority of the community was quite displeased with this new form of celebrating the holidays and the following year (1992), the chamber went back to installing lit decorations on the poles. This time there were handmade toy soldiers and snowmen that were prepared and installed by chamber members. In the late 90s, the newly created Business Improvement District took over the responsibility and began a program to install winter themed snowflake decorations on all of Port's major commercial thoroughfares (Main Street, Port Boulevard, Shore Road, Manorhaven Boulevard), which were completed in 2005.
Smitheimer believes that certain small religious symbols should be permitted in designated public places during holiday season. He considers the holiday season is truly a special time of year, which should remind us, no matter what our faith, that we are all God's creatures and have the same basic dreams, hopes and vulnerabilities for ourselves and our families. He concluded saying, "Religion serves as the basis for our moral compass and it should guide us to be considerate and tolerant of others."