Each December, the Fairfield council of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization, sets up a nativity scene on Town Hall Green and members stand vigil beside it for three days and two nights.
The goal is to draw attention to their message: amid all the running around to fulfill holiday traditions, this is a time of year for kindness and peace. The intent, the Knights say, is to keep Christ in Christmas.
But Town Hall Green in Fairfield is out of the way, on Old Post Road, so two years ago members of the Knights of Columbus Father Coleman Council 2616 began to request permission to move the Christmas creche to the much more visible Sherman Green on the Post Road, said Joe Sargent, an attorney, Fairfield resident and member of Council 2616.
In 2020, and again in 2021, they were refused, Sargent said. When it looked like the request would be denied this year, he brought a lawsuit.
“It’s important to be on Sherman Green, where people can see it,” said Sargent, who filed the civil action this week in U.S. district court. “It goes to the heart of the vigil.”
The lawsuit alleges that, in denying the move, Fairfield Parks and Recreation Director Anthony Calabrese and Fairfield Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Brian Nerreau violated the Knights’ rights to freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, freedom of assembly, and equal protection guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Beyond legal tenets, the town’s refusal disregards a Fairfield Knights of Columbus tradition that began 40 years ago, Sargent said.
In 1983, a Council 2616 member named Nello Ceccarelli built a nativity scene and, like the shepherds of ancient times, waited under the stars for the birth of Jesus. Ceccarelli, who stood watch at the creche with his goat, also named Nello, told a newspaper at the time that he did it because he believed it gave people hope, and a more joyful and meaningful Christmas.
The Knights have continued the vigil ever since, with one or more members of Council 2616 present at the creche at all times between Dec. 23 and Christmas Day, Dec. 25.
Because the vigil takes place on public property, the Knights post a sign stating that the nativity scene is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and not endorsed by the Town of Fairfield, the lawsuit states.
The creche for years was placed on Town Hall Green on Old Post Road, a two-lane street in a residential neighborhood with little traffic. Sargent said Council 2616 sought to move it to Sherman Green after seeing all the other activities taking place there.
“It amounts to visibility,” Sargent said. “What good is our message if no one sees it?”
Sherman Green is surrounded by shops and restaurants in the center of Fairfield, with a large gazebo connected to public sidewalks. It is on the Post Road, which has four lanes of traffic, and is a popular place for protests, parades, political events, celebrations, fund-raisers, concerts and farmers markets, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit includes photographs of recent events including a parents’ rally, a protest over U.S. border policy, and a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Town officials allowed signs on Sherman Green advertising charitable events held by the Police Athletic League, Tree of Hope, Breast Cancer Awareness, and the Fairfield Equity Coalition. Other photos show posters advertising December holiday events.
Sargent said Sherman Green also is a better site because it is near public bathrooms and the police station, and has better lighting.
The lawsuit chronicles Fairfield Parks and Recreation Department denials of the Knights’ request to move the vigil to Sherman Green.
In December 2020, according to the lawsuit, Sargent was informed that Calabrese, the department director, had denied the request because of concerns about COVID-19. But Calabrese said the vigil still could be held at Town Hall Green, which didn’t make sense because the public health risk would be the same at either site, the suit states.
According to the lawsuit, Sargent emailed department officials “seeking confirmation that the COVID-related restrictions on the use of Sherman Green were being applied to all events” during the holidays – not just the Christmas vigil. Department officials responded yes, the lawsuit states.
A few days later, Sargent was driving by Sherman Green and saw a large group gathered to light a menorah, according to the lawsuit.
It quotes a note from Calabrese saying he did not favor moving the vigil to Sherman Green in 2020 because “I feel it stirs the pot. We have had many adamantly opposed to anything religious on the Sherman Green in recent months.”
The lawsuit also quotes the minutes of a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting at which Nerreau, the chairman, said he also opposed the Knights’ request because “we are really limiting what is taking place at the Sherman Green right now.” The town was allowing ceremonies but “I view the crèche more as a display that would be presented there more than a ceremony.”
In 2021, Knights Council 2616 applied for permission a second time and, initially, Nerreau refused to place the request on the commission’s agenda, the lawsuit states. By then, COVID restrictions had been lifted and Sherman Green was being used for all sorts of events.
According to the lawsuit, Nerreau then stated that the Christmas vigil could not take place on Sherman Green because it was too many hours. But, according to the lawsuit, town regulations do not limit hours of use for public parks.
It cites examples from 2017, when the Parks and Recreation Department twice gave permission for charities to set up temporary ice rinks on Sherman Green for three days at a time.
The Knights’ request eventually made it onto the Parks and Recreation Commission agenda in 2021 and drew a tie vote, which equates to a rejection.
“I think the town would just rather not have the Knights of Columbus be on the Post Road,” Sargent said. “I think they think we’re OK for the shadows of the Old Post Road, but being a religious group, they don’t want us at Sherman Green.”
The lawsuit alleges that discrimination against the Christmas vigil is further illustrated by the parks department’s allowance of three other holiday events on Sherman Green – a menorah lighting, the lighting of a Christmas tree, and an event called Santa Visits Fairfield.
The lawsuit alleges that the town “intentionally and purposely discriminated” against the Knights of Columbus “because of their religious viewpoint as expressed through the Christmas vigil.”
The suit seeks a trial by jury, asks the court to grant the Knights use of Sherman Green and to require the town to write new regulations for the Parks and Recreation Commission that contain objective standards for granting permits “that do not afford unbridled discretion to the commissioners.”
James Baldwin, attorney for the Town of Fairfield, said Thursday that the lawsuit is “much ado about nothing.”
“The town has always supported religious freedom and expression of speech. The Knights of Columbus have held a vigil on Town Hall Green since the 1980s,” Baldwin said. “It’s unfortunate that it has come to a lawsuit as it has. We’re a community.”
The Parks and Recreation Commission will address the details of the Knights of Columbus complaint when members meet on Dec. 21, Baldwin said.
“There’s a strong body of law that says that reasonable discretion on time and place (for park use) is not unconstitutional, but the commission will review the application based on how they review all requests for using a town park,” Baldwin said.
By next week’s meeting, “the commission might have a different approach, or the Knights of Columbus may have a different proposal,” Baldwin said. “There’s a process in place and that is being followed.”