Nativity scenes illegal?

Published 4:57pm Sunday, December 29, 2013

RICH SQUARE – Outdoor nativity scenes dot the residential and faith-based landscape throughout the world during the Christmas season.

However, if interpreting a response from Northampton County Manager Ken Creque to a concerned citizen is correct, enclosed nativity scenes are not permitted countywide. As it turns out, neither are sukkahs.

The News-Herald was tipped to this story by Melissa Miles Taylor of Rich Square. Taylor, a Northampton native who recently moved back home with her husband after purchasing the home of her grandmother (Hazel Harrell), requested information from county officials concerning the placement of a sukkah in their yard. A sukkah is a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot.

In a Nov. 14 letter sent to Northampton County Commissioner Chester Deloatch, Taylor explained that she and her husband are church planters for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina as well as missionaries to the Jewish population in eastern North Carolina, trying to reach them with the message of Christ.

“As such, we live contextually, keeping the Jewish holidays and feasts,” Taylor said in the letter to Deloatch. “Back in September, we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, also called the Feast of Tabernacles. During this feast, we build temporary shelters outside and eat within them during an eight day span.”

Taylor said to be in compliance with Northampton County’s zoning laws, she sought the advice of William Flynn at the Zoning Board office to ascertain if any permits were needed to place the sukkah (temporary shelter) in her yard.

“Because we are in the process of building a room in our backyard, we wanted to place the sukkah on the side of the house, toward the front yard,” Taylor said. “We were told by Mr. Flynn that technically it was illegal to place a shelter, even a temporary one, in our front yard. His advice was to put it up and as long as no one reported it he would not have to write the citation for breaking the law. He stated that even if he wrote a citation, we had 30 days to remove it from the property.”

Taylor asked Flynn if there were religious waivers for this type of thing and were advised that none existed.

“While this seems like a solution, what we were advised to do is still breaking the law, something we morally disagree with,” Taylor stressed. “Additionally we feel that this violates our rights of freedom of religion, limiting our ability to practice our faith.”

In her letter to Deloatch, Taylor requested that a religious waiver be allowed to erect a sukkah each fall for the eight-day celebration of Sukkot.

Taylor said she followed up the letter by personally contacting Creque by telephone on Dec. 19.

In a letter, dated Dec. 20, to Taylor, Creque said from his perspective there are primarily three issues that surround this event….the placement and construction of a sukkah, and the implication of being advised to break the law, and the assertion that her freedom of religion was violated.

“With the case of the sukkah, unfortunately there is nothing to be done and Mr. Flynn was correct with notifying you that the placement of the sukkah, even temporarily would be a violation of county ordinances,” Creque wrote in his letter, adding that the county’s zoning ordinances are not just in place for controlling and guiding development, but also for health and safety reasons.

“These prohibitions against accessory buildings in front yards would also prohibit the display of a full size manger, the construction of a full size re-production of the Kaaba, because Northampton County has no waivers for temporary religious constructions,” Creque’s letter continued. “Without such an ordinance in place there is no ability of staff to waive any ordinance enacted by the Northampton Board of Commissioners. If this is something that you believe should be enacted then I strongly urge you to present your idea to the Northampton Board of Commissioners, during any bi-monthly meeting, or to the Northampton County Planning Board for consideration.”

As far as Flynn’s assertion that he may have attempted to suggest to Taylor to violate county ordinances, Creque said he has spoken to Flynn about this situation.

“I do not believe that to have been his (Flynn’s) intent,” Creque noted. “I believe Mr. Flynn was earnestly attempting to help you understand the nuances of the county’s planning and zoning ordinances which can be very confusing and often seemingly contradictory to residents who have only an occasional interaction with the county’s Planning and Zoning Department or Code Enforcement. I sincerely regret and apologize on behalf of NorthamptonCounty staff if you received his message in any negative manner.”

Creque called Taylor’s assertions that her and her family’s Rights of Freedom Religion were violated, “a very serious issue.” He went on to explain the certain rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“However, these freedoms are not absolute, particularly when it comes to community safety, and well being,” he wrote.  “There are numerous restrictions on freedom of religion in the United States that have been up held by the US Supreme Court.  Additionally, churches, mosques, temples are routinely subject to building codes, zoning, and so forth regulating where these building{s} can be, how these building{s} are constructed and so forth. The same for the placement of your temporary sukkah, as I mentioned earlier, a primary reason for these prohibitions is for safety concerns for the community.

“Though it can be debated on a case by case basis whether or not one thing is more or less safe than another, currently staff has no such freedom in accordance with county ordinances to make such a judgment even under temporary guidelines. As things are at this moment the sukkah would be a violation based on safety concerns,” Creque closed.

Corresponding with the News-Herald on Monday of last week via email, Taylor said she was “shocked by Creque’s response.”

“I’ve seen churches place life-sized nativity scenes in their yards and no one has ever said anything and to my knowledge, the county has never asked them to remove them or fined them for their placement,” Taylor said. “We contacted the county zoning officer because we have experienced some anti-Semitism here, name calling for the most part, and we didn’t want anyone to call and complain that we had erected some weird type of shed in the yard, resulting in a fine.

“When we were told that there were no religious waivers and that it was illegal, I was stunned,” she continued. ‘And then to get Mr. Creque’s letter and discover that not only was my sukkah illegal, but so were life-sized nativity scenes, I was beyond stunned.  This has the potential to affect quite a few people and churches in the area who may not know that it is illegal. My question is, over the years have many been in violation of this and it has been overlooked and furthermore, why does it matter now?”

She said that the context of Creque’s letter and its explanation of “community safety” seemed to imply that illegal things would be taking place in the sukkah.

If this was unintentional, I’m certainly willing to overlook the implication, perhaps he was not able to express himself well with regards to governmental regulation over religious expression, not to mention, there are quite a few instances of court cases where municipalities have fined and persecuted Jewish people for erecting sukkah as zoning law violations,” Taylor remarked.

She continued, “If what he meant by community safety or safety concern regards the possibility of someone getting hurt on my property, to which I pay taxes on, there are three comments I’d like to make:  (1) In NC, it is illegal to come onto private property where No Trespassing signs or Private Property signs are erected. If someone comes onto my property to try to enter the sukkah without my permission, they will be prosecuted.  (2) I’ve always understood it to be that any injury sustained on your property will either be covered by homeowners or the homeowner him/herself would pay for the damages incurred.  (3) There is more likelihood of someone becoming injured entering one of the many dilapidated buildings and houses scattered throughout Northampton County than entering my sukkah.  Why is this not a safety concern for the county?”

Taylor said she and her husband will take Creque up on his suggestion to address the county commissioners at an upcoming board meeting.

“We are notifying the media because we would like for the area’s Christian community to rally some support for us at this meeting.  This affects not only us, but the Christian community of Northampton County.  We should be able to express our faith without fear of persecution through a zoning ordinance violation,” Taylor concluded.

Those wishing to contact Taylor can do so by email at   beth.emet.ahoskie@gmail.com.

  1. hemlock

    I just can’t believe that when this provision was written, there was not an exemption clause written in. This short sightedness needs to be addressed so that the county is not standing in the way of an important religious remembrance such as the Festival of Booths. Look it up in the Old Testament to see what God said about it. And here is another great idea, talk the the Howard’s about how important it is to their faith and religious practice. Please get this right Northhampton Co.

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  2. erh252

    This is obviously an issue that needs addressing by the county. To not allow these temporary structures is an obvious 1st amendment violation. Worshippers should not be in violation of code by constructing nativity scenes or sukkahs on THEIR OWN property. I hope that the citizens of Northampton County will force their commissioners to right this wrong (even better if they will do it on their own w/o the citizens having to get involved).

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