By Sallie James
Will residents see another pentagram display, or something equally jarring, in Sanborn Square this year during the winter holiday season?
Boca Raton City Council members on Aug. 22 scrapped a plan to ban “unattended, expressive installations, displays, exhibits and similar objects” in the park after nearly two dozen residents begged them not to take away their First Amendment rights. The ban also would have prohibited residents from displaying a crèche and menorah.
City Council member Andrea Levine O’Rourke said the public outcry against the ordinance convinced her it wasn’t the right solution.
“My position here is to represent the people of our city and I have heard you loud and clear,” O’Rourke said.
The issue came up for discussion after a resident last year obtained a permit to erect a pentagram with a banner disavowing the existence of heaven and hell. The display was repeatedly vandalized and became the focus of numerous television and newspaper reports. City officials said they were concerned about public safety.
Residents — many of whom voiced distaste with the pentagram display — were upset about the proposed ban on private displays and implored city officials to reconsider.
“Our annual holiday tradition in our city for almost 20 years has been greatly enjoyed by our Boca residents and I hate to see that end,” said resident Therese Brady.
Boca resident Victoria Glys Morin said she was speaking out to protect residents’ First Amendment rights.
“It’s disturbing to me that we’re going to define ‘exercise’ within a council and usurp the tradition of a nation in terms of the exercise of religion. I’m against this ordinance,” Glys Morin told the council.
Preston Smith, who teaches at a Boca Raton middle school, erected the pentagram display last year under the protections of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion and speech. The city has allowed religious groups to set up seasonal displays such as a Nativity scene and a menorah at the park, at 72 N. Federal Highway, since 1990.
Smith said the city had to be ready for anything if it opened up public forums and invited religious groups.
“The Jews and Christians do not have a monopoly on wedging their views into our public sphere,” Smith said last year.
Boca resident Charles Fix suggested installing cameras in Sanborn Square as a safety measure.
“Forget changing the ordinance. Stay with what you’ve got. It’s the best thing you can have,” Fix noted.
Another resident suggested putting the issue to a public vote.
Boca resident Ron Sheldon urged the council to scrap the proposed ordinance.
“Facilitating or protecting — that is your job — not controlling,” he noted.
Andrew Sherman, the rector at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, wondered if the city was overreacting to the vandalism that had been somewhat embarrassing.
“I honor the fact that in America we allow people to exercise free speech. But it seems to me we want to give up something that is deeply important and precious in our community. That is the symbol of traditions, Jewish and Christian, living side by side and honoring their traditions in a peaceful way,” Sherman said.
Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers liked the idea of a public referendum. He noted that a decision to abandon the proposed ordinance might be accompanied by “a certain amount of chaos.”
“I think I will move tonight to not pass this and maybe put it to the people to vote,” Rodgers said.