A man walks past a fountain in Bucksport where the town usually displays a nativity scene. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

The town took down a nativity scene that has been displayed annually in downtown Bucksport for decades after a secular group asked that it also be allowed to put up an adjacent banner celebrating the Bill of Rights.

The town put up its nativity scene on a tiny municipal-owned parcel on Main Street earlier this month but decided to remove it last week as it considered how to handle the request from the Maine chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A potential solution to bring baby Jesus and company back while also making room for other displays of good cheer could be passed at the Town Council meeting on Thursday.

The foundation asked to put their sign up in the spirit of equality and nondiscrimination after learning of the town’s nativity scene, said Tom Waddell, the Maine chapter president.

The banner depicts America’s founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty looking down upon the Bill of Rights laying in a manger, in honor of the bill’s adoption on Dec. 15, 1791.  

The Maine chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation asked the town of Bucksport if it could put up this banner after learning the municipality displays a nativity scene. Credit: Courtesy of Tom Waddell

“There’s more to American culture than just Christianity,” he said Wednesday. “Just having a nativity scene on public property is exclusive. That is our message. We want to promote inclusivity.”

The chapter made a similar request a few years ago in Sanford and put up a banner in the southern Maine town, Waddell said.

The Bucksport nativity scene goes back more than half a century, and it used to be displayed by workers at the town’s paper mill. The mill workers later gave the scene to the town, and the municipality has put it up on Main Street for about 50 years.

When the request for the Freedom From Religion Foundation came in, Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard reached out to the town’s attorney. The attorney said the town, under the First Amendment, would likely have to accommodate the other sign if the municipality was also putting up a religious one like the nativity.

While figuring out the best path forward, the town decided to take down the nativity scene to be sure it wasn’t violating any laws. The attorney strongly discouraged the town from denying the foundation’s request and keeping the manger displayed.

Lessard said the town could give the nativity to a private group to display on private property, not put it up at all, or make room for other holiday displays.

She plans to recommend the last option to the Town Council at its meeting on Thursday and is eyeing a piece of town-owned land near the bridge to Verona Island that could host other holiday displays.

This idea could thread the needle between keeping the town on the right side of the law, and appeasing residents miffed about the disappearance of a local Christmas tradition. Letters and comments have been pouring into town hall about the issue since the manger was yanked about a week ago.

While it’s a religious symbol, the nativity also is a reminder to some of Bucksport’s past as a mill town.

“It was made by mill workers and carries as much history as it does religion,” Lessard said. “A lot of what people are feeling relates to the historical nature of how long this tradition has been there.”