Knights Were Not Silent

When the Knights of Columbus couldn’t display a manger scene on town property, they took their case to the Supreme Court. The result affected crèche displays nationwide.

Father Brian Gannon (l) blesses the 2010 Trumbull Nativity display flanked by a Knights of Columbus honor guard.
Father Brian Gannon (l) blesses the 2010 Trumbull Nativity display flanked by a Knights of Columbus honor guard. (photo: Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus)

TRUMBULL, Conn. — For the 15th straight year, the Knights of Columbus unveiled a crèche on the Town Hall green in the town of Trumbull, Conn., Dec. 19.

Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t as simple as it is today.

The Trumbull crèche became a national test case, and the Knights’ victory at the U.S. Supreme Court allowed groups to display Nativity scenes at Christmas on public property throughout the United States.

Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop William Lori, supreme chaplain of the Knights, was scheduled to preside at this year’s ceremony, but he was among those travelers stranded by severe weather in Europe.

In his place, Father Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, blessed the crèche.

“It was very beautiful to have so many people there to celebrate the birth of Our Lord and to celebrate religious freedom in this country,” said Father Gannon, reflecting on the ceremony.

According to the Dec. 10, 2009, results of a Rasmussen Reports national phone survey, 76% of adults strongly believe religious symbols like Nativity scenes should be allowed on public lands. That was up 2% over the previous year’s survey.

Donald Creatore, deputy grand knight of the St. Theresa Council 2961 at St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, knows all about that particular controversy.

The first crèche display quite unexpectedly turned into a landmark case. In 1992, Creatore and two fellow Knights noticed that a menorah on the Town Hall green was being displayed for the 16th year. They envisioned adding a crèche; Creatore spoke with Trumbull’s first selectman (mayor), David Wilson, who first said Yes, then No, then the next year said the Knights could display the crèche with a permit.

In 1994 Creatore got the permit — and a surprise phone call from the first selectman three days before the crèche was to be erected, telling him, permit or not, the Knights could not put up the Nativity scene because there was to be no menorah.

Creatore remembers being told, “We’re going to be showing favoritism to one religion.” This time, he wasn’t taking No for an answer.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights referred him to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, the Becket Fund’s founder and president, came right away to meet Creatore.

“Talk about divine intervention to find the attorney like this,” said Creatore, looking back. “We were blessed.”

No One Complains

At once, the Becket Fund tried to get a temporary restraining order and injunction so the crèche could go up on the weekend as planned. No dice, said the federal court in Bridgeport. Creatore and Hasson immediately went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York where, as expected, they lost again — even though no one had ever complained about the menorah placed on the Trumbull Town Green by a private group.

Straightaway, the Becket Fund appealed to the Supreme Court. Early in 1995, the court heard the case the same day it decided another case in favor of a private display of a simple cross on the Ohio State Capitol grounds. The Supreme Court vacated the appeals court’s decision and remanded the case back to the Second Circuit, then to the district court. The Knights were permitted to display their crèche — for 10 days.

“We put it up in December 1995,” said a joyful Creatore, who arranged for a local priest to come for a blessing that first night and annually ever since.

“I made it a point to personally invite [the first selectman], who did attend,” Creatore added. “I wanted to start in a good way.”

The case took only six weeks to get to the Supreme Court on an emergency basis. Hasson said the remand order for the case to be rethought “made clear Nativity scenes, like other cultural symbols, should be welcome in the town square, literally.”

“We don’t deal with diversity in America pretending we’re all males, pretending we’re all white, or pretending we’re all Irish, so why should we pretend with diversity we’re all agnostics?” he said.

“It’s ridiculous: Every year we have to litigate our Christmas decorations,” Hasson continued, explaining that religion is like ethnicity and race in America. Government religious distinctions are governed by different constitutional provisions than racial and ethnic distinctions, but the legal test is identical.

Among those attending this year’s 15th anniversary blessing of the crèche in front of the Town Hall was Trumbull’s current first selectman, Tim Herbst, State Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull, and longtime Trumbull town resident Patricia Bell.

“It shows the true meaning of Christmas,” Bell reflected. She is glad the Knights donated the crèche and led the fight to display it. “Without the birth of Jesus there would be no Christmas.”

As for Creatore and the annual 10-day crèche display on the Town Hall lawn, he made a point to stress there has never been any vandalism or problems of any sort. And never one complaint. People even offer money to help.

His simple conclusion? “We’re been very blessed.” 

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.