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Nativity scene sparks controversy in Bethel

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BETHEL -- Talk to any resident in Bethel and it won't be long until they bring up their nativity scene.

The community pays for it and town leaders said it's been a part of the community for over 50 years.

"There is a long-standing policy and procedure in place that allows people to run a craft fair and so on and so forth," said Bethel first selectman Matthew Knickerbocker.

He said others have tried to put up different scenes or signs but they've never made it to the green. Knickerbocker said it's because of procedural issues, like missing paperwork.

Now, organizations like the American Atheists Legal Center are chiming in, claiming the town is discriminating against other applicants that aren't religious.

It's an accusation that forced town leaders to hold a special meeting with a simple purpose.

"To devise a policy and a procedure that guarantees that other groups, religious groups and non religious groups, and individuals have an opportunity to erect some kind of display that recognizes their cultural heritage," said Knickerbocker.

Applicants will now have to live in Bethel, buy insurance for their display and pass a safety test for all physical objects.

Knickerbocker said there is already a new applicant with a sign that reads, "This season, no matter what you celebrate or why, happy holidays from your atheist neighbor."

"The town has a moral and a legal obligation to include other cultures," said Knickerbocker.

Town leaders voted to pass the new procedures Monday night.

The decision to install the new sign has been tabled in order to make sure it isn't larger than the nativity scene, in order to maintain fairness.

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