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HONESDALE, PA — Emotional outbursts, spontaneous applause, and shouts of “right on” and “you said it, brother” punctuated the October 6 Honesdale Borough Council meeting. All part of the public comment segment preceding the agenda, the palpable outrage was in response to a June letter from the nonprofit organization Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) to Honesdale mayor Sarah Canfield threatening legal action if the star and cross that light Irving Cliff during Christmas and Easter holiday seasons are not removed from borough property.
Filled to capacity, the council room included some lifelong area residents who admitted this was their first borough council meeting experience. At least one was unsure if the public is welcome at council meetings. All said they felt an obligation to make the council aware of their strong desire to preserve the Irving Cliff holiday traditions they’d known since childhood.
Most of the seven spokespeople representing more than 50 people in the gallery opposed to the FFRF petition identified themselves as Christians, but said they regarded the Irving Cliff icons less as symbols of their religious faith than as longstanding seasonal traditions so unique to Honesdale that they are now part of its identity and culture.
FFRF says on its website home page that its mission is to promote nontheism and defend the constitutional separation of religion and government (tinyurl.com/ybujbo9j) Under that banner, it asserts that religious symbols have no place on public borough property maintained at taxpayer expense.
Vice president Bill Canfield, on medical leave from the council for months, made a brief appearance to provide a history of the Irving Cliff lights and their sanction by the council in 1955 when Frances Gibbons, then owner of Irving Cliff, donated 48 acres to the borough for use as public space. Part of the Gibbons agreement was a stipulation that the borough never sell the parcel, making divestiture of the property difficult but not impossible. One of the spokespeople suggested donating the land to one of the borough churches or another nonprofit organization willing to assume responsibility for its upkeep. However, some in the gallery saw the FFRF petition as infringement on their freedom of religion and vowed to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court.
President Mike Augello told the gallery that the council is not necessarily unsympathetic to their desire to keep the cross and star, but that it is bound to express no public opinion on the matter until the legal review now underway has been completed.
FFRF lawsuits against municipalities elsewhere in the country have resulted in astronomical legal defense bills. With Honesdale Borough Council already on the receiving end of so many lawsuits that it now struggles to find professional liability insurance, caution in this matter may well be its best policy.