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City solves creche parking dispute Downtown

City Hall erects its own signs in church-state separation flap

Saturday, November 30, 2002

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's a good thing there were no city government officials among the three wise men a couple of millennia ago. With the way they handle street signs and other directions, they never would have found that little town of Bethlehem.

Almost three months ago, police officials directed the Christian Leaders Fellowship to erect parking signs on Grant Street, adjacent to the popular Christmas creche scene by USX Tower Downtown. Then this week, after the signs went up, the city's top lawyer said the signs may be illegal and should come down.

Looking for a compromise, other city officials said parking should still be allowed by the creche, but not marked by the church-funded signs. So yesterday the Public Works Department replaced them with new, city-funded signs that do not mention the creche by name.

The whirlwind of contradicting directions, church-vs.-state concerns, and holiday parking headaches was more like a spinning dreidel than a quiet manger scene.

"There can be public safety issues with parking there and we realize that. We have no argument with that," said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the fellowship and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. "If they need to take signs down, they need to take them down."

A creche is a display of a stable scene, usually erected at Christmas, representing a scene at the birth of Jesus, the founder of Christianity.

The Christian Leaders Fellowship, an ecumenical group of 10 local church organizations, has erected its creche scene at the privately owned USX plaza since 1999. It is the only replica of the creche in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican and draws more than 30,000 visitors annually, Lengwin said.

There is no parking allowed adjacent to the creche site on Grant Street and Sixth Avenue. Knowing many visitors would want to park there anyway, city officials have agreed since 1999 to allow temporary, 10-minute parking in the 600 block of Grant, after 7 p.m. on weeknights and all day weekends, not including Penguin hockey nights.

Parking variances were issued to the fellowship every year directing the organization to post its own Grant Street parking signs, saying "Creche Viewing" at the top. Under police orders, photocopies of the variances were taped to the back of the three signs so traffic enforcement police would know they were legitimate.

The latest variance, from Special Deployment Division Cmdr. RaShall Brackney, was issued Sept. 9 and was still affixed to the three signs before city crews removed them yesterday.

"Due to the popularity of the attraction, reasonable parking allowances have been extended to allow for viewing of the creche during the holiday season," Brackney's memo reads.

Police can decide to prohibit parking during other Mellon Arena events, the two-page memo continues, but "as has been the tradition, all courtesies and considerations [should] be afforded to those citizens who wish to visit this display during the holiday season."

In bold letters, the variance also says the fellowship "will be responsible for posting and reviewing signs in these blocks, advertising that parking for the creche will be permitted during the times indicated."

The signs went up in time for Light Up Night, Nov. 22. On Thursday a report in the Tribune-Review of Greensburg said the city was considering removing the signs after receiving a complaint that they violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

City Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow agreed the signs should be removed, but not because of constitutional worries. Instead, she said, the city code allows only city government to post signs on public streets and sidewalks, not private groups.

Public Works Director Guy Costa and city Councilman Bob O'Connor proposed the solution implemented yesterday, when city crews placed new signs on the block allowing 30-minute parking from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. weeknights and all day weekends.

The new signs do not mention the creche and thereby allow temporary parking for other Downtown activities.

"With the old signs, the argument was the only reason the city allowed parking there was to visit the manger scene, and you couldn't park there for any other reason," Public Works Director Guy Costa said yesterday, after overseeing the placement of new signs.

"This is a good compromise. Now with the new way it's set up, you can go to the creche or anyplace else, but only for the hours indicated."

This is just the latest creche-related tempest for the city. Until 1989, the Nativity scene had been at the county courthouse, but opponents, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, won a court order saying the display amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of a religion.

From 1996 to 1998, a small version of the stable scene by the Christian Leaders Fellowship was placed on the Gateway Center lawn, but it also drew protests since it was on city-owned property. It moved to the USX Tower the next year.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.

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