DUNWOODY, Ga. — The Dunwoody City Council considered a policy for holiday decorations at its Oct. 14 meeting, but delayed a vote to allow for more opportunity for public comment.
Under the new policy, city buildings would not be able to decorate with religious symbols, such as a nativity scene or menorah. The city could still put up decorations that are considered secular, even if they are traditionally associated with a religious holiday, such as Santa Claus, a “holiday tree” or a dreidel.
City employees would be allowed to keep religious symbols at their desks or personal spaces. The policy would only govern public displays.
City Attorney Bill Riley said the proposed policy was drafted after an unidentified citizen requested that the city display a nativity scene during the upcoming holiday season. Riley noted that when cases regarding the display of religious symbols on public grounds go to the Supreme Court, they usually end in controversial, 5-4 votes.
“We drafted a policy that steered away from all of that,” Riley said. “We didn’t really want to get into a fight on either side of it.”
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Subsequent court decisions have ruled this clause does not only apply to the U.S. Congress, but all levels of government.
Mayor Denis Shortal indicated he wasn’t the biggest fan of the policy, but said he wouldn’t “die on this hill” if the rest of the council supported it.
“From a personal standpoint, sometimes I think we over-legislate the world here a little bit,” Shortal said. “I understand the pros and cons … I guess it’s the way things are today. I grew up in a different world where you just put something up.”
No council members raised objections, but Councilman John Heneghan asked that the vote be pushed back to the next meeting to give the public time to review the policy and weigh in.
“I think I’m OK with what we have in front of us,” he said. “I’m ready to vote yes, but that being said I want to make sure we are doing our due diligence when it comes to the transparency aspect. This does not require a second read, but I see no reason or the urgency to approve it tonight.”
Riley said that as long as there was a policy in place before decorations would start going up in mid-November there was no problem with delaying the vote. The council unanimously voted to take the issue up at their Oct. 28 meeting.
Also at the Oct. 14 meeting, the council discussed but did not act on the Vulnerable Road User policy and public art policy.
The Vulnerable Road User ordinance would establish clear rules for drivers, bikers and pedestrians to share the roads and create harsher penalties for drivers who pass too close or harass other road users.
Though discussed for several meetings now, there has been no vote. Members of the public have spoken both for and against the proposal.
Councilwoman Lynn Deutsch said that if the policy is adopted there should be a six-month rollout period where the city works to educate the public and make sure appropriate infrastructure is in place before enforcement begins.
Councilman Tom Lambert, who brought forward the ordinance, agreed with the suggestion.
Shortal said he thought the maximum penalty of six-months in jail was too harsh. Others said they trusted the judges’ discretion and that few if any violators would actually face that punishment.
Shortal also took issue with the requirement that drivers move into the lane for opposing traffic if necessary to give three feet of space when passing a biker or other road user.
“Moving completely into the opposite lane just defies what we’re always supposed to do,” he said. “I just think that’s very questionable. I don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
Lambert said that was an essential part of the ordinance. Part of the goal of the ordinance, he said, is to clarify that it is legal to cross a double yellow line to give sufficient space to a bicyclist.
“By putting that in there we’re clearly saying ‘Yes, you’re not only allowed to but we’re asking you to,” Lambert said. “Without that we’re basically where we are today.”
The ordinance will be discussed again Nov. 18, when they will also continue discussion about public art. Three residents spoke during the public comment asking the council to make public art a higher priority.