The recent controversy over the Exalt 95 banners has less to do with religious issues than with the absence of a clearly-defined policy regarding who can hang banners on the viaducts. Up till now local organizations have had to depend on the whim of whoever they happened to talk to at the Village Hall. If they talked to the right person, their request was approved; if not, it might be delayed or even rejected. It’s no surprise to me that the organizers of Exalt 95 had to threaten a lawsuit in order to get their banners re-hung. I’m only surprised that no one has done that before.
In an increasingly-diverse village like Oak Park, we need clearly-defined guidelines that allow the various groups in our community the opportunity to put their message before the public. I doubt that the Board of Trustees wants to be put in the position of deciding which of our “valuable institutions” deserves space on the viaducts and which ones don’t. And for that matter, why should the village have any interest in promoting “multi-religious” events versus events supported by one particular faith? Such an approach guarantees religious discrimination and invites lawsuits from those churches and groups that choose not to participate. Or why should the village decide that an event sponsored by many religions is somehow more acceptable than an event promoting Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or the Baha’i faith? How many “faiths” have to join together in order for the village to approve their banners? If First Baptist Church and Oak Park Temple join together for an event, is that good enough? Or must they also invite St. Edmunds along? What if Harrison Street Bible Church wants in, or the Unity Temple? Should the local Buddhist association automatically be included to gain village approval? How will we know when we’ve included enough groups to get our banners up on the viaducts? The trustees will end up as full-time religious referees deciding which groups to approve and which ones they don’t like.
As I see it, the village has basically three options regarding banners on the viaducts. The easiest, cleanest approach is simply to stop hanging any banners at all. That way they won’t be faced with any difficult decisions and this whole controversy will disappear. However, many local organizations would lose a very visible means of publicity and the village would lose one of the more colorful marks of our diversity.
A second approach would be to allow only those banners advertising events sponsored directly by the village and its various subdivisions. No private organizations could ever hang banners on the viaducts, thus ruling out anything that remotely relates to religion. However, this would also eliminate banners advertising the Wright Walk, the Fiesta de Hemingway, the Garden Walk, and many other popular local events.
A third possibility is to view the viaducts as a kind of public forum for advertising a wide spectrum of events in Oak Park. In this approach, any local organization or group (e.g. a “valuable institution”) could hang a banner advertising any upcoming event, providing they meet a set of fairly rigorous guidelines approved by the Village Board. I would suggest that any banners must meet two broad criteria: 1) They must be advertising an event in Oak Park to which the public is invited (a concert, a speech, a parade, a festival, a book fair, etc), and 2) They must be sponsored by a group or organization in Oak Park (a church, a school, a civic organization, a local club, a business, a local committee, an ad hoc task force, or one of the many governmental agencies in our village. As a further safeguard, that local sponsorship should be clearly stated on each banner. These two guidelines ensure that we won’t put general messages message on the viaducts (“Vote for Jim Smith” or “Read the Bible” or “See Rock City”) and that every banner will have local sponsors who are accountable for the event they are advertising.
Beyond those two general guidelines, I would expect the village policy to set forth explicit regluations regarding the allowable size of the banners, proper materials, size of the lettering, use of commercial symbols, and so on. It should also state how many banners could be put up for any one event and set forth a strict time limit on how long banners can be put up before an event (two weeks should be enough). Furthermore, the policy should also put a limit on how many banners for various events will be hung on a given viaduct at the same time and it should also list which viaducts are available for hanging banners and whether or not local organizations can request particular locations. (That last point is important since the two major locations are Ridgeland Avenue and Oak Park Avenue. The Marion Street overpass, for instance, gets much less traffic and would seem to be a less desirable location.) One final point must be stressed: Once these guidelines are published, the village must enforce them in an even-handed manner, not favoring one group over another.
If there is concern regarding the use of village employees to hang the banners, there is also a simple solution: Charge a reasonable fee to cover the cost of the time and labor for putting up and taking down the banners. If everyone pays the same fee, there shouldn’t be any complaint about what the banners actually say.
This approach would solve the problem of the Exalt 95 banners. If they meet the guidelines, they can hang on the viaducts. If not, they don’t. If other religious groups in Oak Park wish to advertise their upcoming events, by all means let them do so, provided they meet the stated guidelines. The same principle holds for all the “valuable institutions” of Oak Park, no where where they fall on the political/cultural/religious spectrum.
All that I have said might work if it were not for the fact that Oak Park is polarized over issues of religion and politics. A stroll through Scoville Park during the Day In Our Village reveals that we are a pro-active community with a multitude of organizations representing virtually every possible viewpoint. The church I pastor represents one well-defined point of view. You can find many other churches that differ from us slightly, moderately, or enormously. The same is true of the political and cultural landscape. It seems to me that if we intend to set forth diversity as one of our strengths, we ought to let that diversity manifest itself on the viaducts of Oak Park.
Is it possible that someone will occasionally be offended by what they see on one of the banners? Absolutely, but that’s the price we pay for living here. I am not in favor of giving offense unnecessarily, but I am much more opposed to a bland neutrality that suppresses our differences and homogenizes our viewpoints in order to produce a politically correct middle ground.
Oak Park has a well-deserved reputation as a wide-open community, where we discuss issues that other towns won’t touch. Free the viaducts, I say, and let our banners represent the full diversity found in our village.