While it may appear a recently passed Park District of Oak Park ordinance is aimed at religious displays, park board officials say their concern is to avoid clogging already limited park space.

To that end, the park board voted unanimously last month to ban all unattended displays on park property.

While there has been some reference to controversy over Christian and Jewish religious displays in Scoville Park last year, both Executive Director Gary Balling and park district attorney Mark Burkland said the ordinance resulted from other concerns.

Balling noted the issue with a large menorah in Scoville Park last year, but said park board President Mark Gartland was more concerned with developing a consistent policy covering all displays.

Balling said that while such unattended displays aren’t particularly a problem, and that permit requests are infrequent, the park commissioners wanted to avoid any possible future legal problems.

“It was triggered by a concern to have a consistent year-round policy,” he said.

Burkland said the ordinance was not a reaction to any religious concerns.

“It’s definitely not religion-related,” he said. “It covers all unattended displays. It’s related to concerns over equal protection and due process,” he said.

“If you allow a religious organization to place a statue of the Ten Commandments in a park in July, do you have to allow another organization to place some other display in December?” he asked.

The new ordinance states, “It is the policy of the park district that privately sponsored, unattended displays and symbols are not an appropriate use of park district property, that such displays and symbols are not allowed on or within park district property and that they are not eligible for a park use permit.”

“Other activities of speech or assembly nature not prohibited” by the ordinance are still permitted under the park district’s rules and regulations.

Noting that last sentence, Burkland stressed that the ordinance does not prohibit otherwise properly permitted and attended displays on park land.

“If someone wants to get a permit and walk to the park holding a crèche or a menorah, it’s absolutely permitted,” he said.

The park district will also be changing its approach to holiday decorating in order to avoid any appearance of religious favoritism. Certain parks, Balling said, would be decorated in a “festive” rather than religious nature, with white lights substituted for the more “Christmasy” colored variety.

“Some trees will be decorated like the trees in Downtown Oak Park,” he said.

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