Christian activist feuds with suburban park district over a nativity scene

Jim Finnegan invokes free speech rights, but a lawyer for the Arlington Heights Park District says he never filled out the proper forms

November 27, 2012

(Flickr/lbj79us)
Jim Finnegan was a part of the battle in the 1980s over the nativity scene in Daley Plaza, which was dedicated for the 27th year on Saturday Nov. 24

A controversy over a holiday display in a suburb west of Chicago could have a simple resolution: a little paperwork.

In early November, Christian activist Jim Finnegan offered to donate a large nativity to the Arlington Heights Park District. The town’s annual holiday display includes a Christmas tree and dreidels, but Finnegan was not satisfied.

“It’s like the difference between Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas,” said Finnegan, who lives in Barrington and used to be a resident of Arlington Heights. “We stand up for what the true meaning of Christmas is, and that’s the birth of Christ.”

In addition to being the only current member of the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee in the western suburbs, Finnegan is a board member at the Illinois Family Institute and a co-founder of a group that advocates against abortion rights in Ireland.

When the park district said they didn’t want Finnegan’s nativity, he called up his lawyer, Tom Brejcha of the Thomas More Society. The Thomas More Society is a Chicago-based law firm that represents people who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion.

Finnegan and Brejcha are both connected to a group in Springfield that advocated successfully to place a large nativity scene on the state capitol five years ago. In the 1980s, Finnegan was involved in a battle over the nativity scene in Chicago’s Daley Plaza that resulted in a lawsuit. That nativity scene went up this month without a hitch. Finnegan said the various nativity scenes he has advocated for were paid for by an anonymous donor.

The pair sent a letter Nov. 20 indicating that Finnegan’s first-amendment rights were being violated.

But Timothy Riordan, the attorney for the Arlington Heights Park District, said Finnegan had simply never filled out an application for a permit. Instead, he asked the district to accept a donation of a nativity they didn’t want.

“In our view there’s no real controversy,” Riordan said.

He sent Finnegan’s lawyer an application for a park use permit on Nov. 26.

“He wanted to donate the nativity scene to the park district," Riordan said. "The park district indicated it wasn’t interested in accepting that donation. The park always had a holiday display and just didn’t think it was consistent with the display they’d had in the past. If you want to use a park for any purpose, there’s a form.”

Finnegan said Tuesday that he plans to apply for a permit to place the nativity in a different part of the same park.

“I trust that the story will have a happy ending,” Brejcha said. “I congratulate Arlington Heights on having a beautiful park display. It’s a positive step that they may be hospitable to the nativity scene after all."