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Christmas symbols back on display in Oklahoma City office

By The Associated Press,
First Amendment Center Online
12.25.07

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two employees who claim they were forced to remove Christian-themed decorations from their office and breakroom put the items back on display while a legal battle continues over whether the employees' rights were violated.

A judge on Dec. 19 denied a temporary restraining order to two Oklahoma City employees who filed a lawsuit claiming the city violated their constitutional right to display religious symbols at work. The employees had asked for the order so they could continue to display the religious items.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy DeGiusti said a restraining order wasn't necessary because City Manager Jim Couch sent a clarifying memo Dec. 18 saying the decorations would be allowed.

Attorneys for the two employees said the lawsuit would continue. They said they believe Couch's memo didn't go far enough to protect religious expression.

The dispute began after Couch sent an original memo Nov. 15 that said Nativity scenes, crosses, angels, cherubs and other religious items should not be displayed in government offices in order to "maintain neutrality" and avoid promoting one religion over another.

Employees Chris Spencer and Kenneth Buck took the memo to mean they had to remove Christian decorations from Spencer's office and Buck's Bible that he kept in the breakroom. The two filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 17 accusing Couch and other city employees of violating their constitutional rights. The workers claim a supervisor told Spencer he had to remove religious scriptures from the wall of his office, as well as an ichthus — a fish symbol first used by early Christians — on his filing cabinet. The employees also claim the city forced the removal of a Bible from the breakroom and the cancellation of an annual breakroom Christmas party that included an opening prayer.

Couch sent another memo to department and division heads Dec. 18 that sought to clarify his original memo. The memo said the original memo pertained only to holiday decorations in public spaces at city office buildings, not decorations in employees' personal workspaces.

Spencer put the items back in his office Dec. 18, and Buck's Bible was returned to the breakroom. In the Dec. 19 ruling, the judge left open the question of whether the city violated the employees' constitutional rights.

"We are relieved that the court denied the temporary restraining order and determined the clarification memo issued by the city manager sufficiently addressed the immediate concerns of Mr. Spencer and Mr. Buck," city spokeswoman Kristy Yager said.

But an attorney for the employees said the lawsuit would continue because the employees are concerned with the "bigger picture" and not just their personal offices.

"We want the court to determine that what happened to our clients was a constitutional violation," said Brent Olsson, an Oklahoma City attorney representing the employees. The employees are being aided by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group that advocates for religious freedom.

Group objects to Nativity scene at Ark. Capitol ...
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A Nativity scene next to the state Capitol has caught the attention of a Wisconsin-based group that says the display violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

An attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling for Arkansas to "remove the offending symbol from the Capitol grounds and alleviate any constitutional violations." A copy of James A. Friedman's letter, addressed to Gov. Mike Beebe, was faxed to the Associated Press on Dec. 17.

Matt DeCample, a spokesman for the governor, said Beebe did not agree that the Nativity scene should be removed.

"It's a simple and nonintrusive holiday display that's appropriate for the season," DeCample said.

The display just south of the Capitol includes carved wooden sculptures inside a wooden structure that is about 30 feet wide. It includes two signs on the front advertising an address where people can send contributions to the private foundation responsible for the display.

Friedman's letter cites County of Allegheny v. ACLU, a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited the display of a crèche at a county courthouse.

In 1993, Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant issued an opinion regarding Nativity scenes on state property. He, too, cited the Allegheny case.

"The court held that the crucial determination in evaluating the constitutionality of a particular Christmas display is whether the display has the appearance or effect of 'endorsing' religion," Bryant said. "In making this determination, the particular physical setting is critical, and must be judged on its own facts. The court concluded that the crèche, which essentially stood alone in the most prominent part of the courthouse, had the effect of endorsing religion."

Natasha Naragon, a spokeswoman for Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels, said there were no plans to remove the Nativity display.

"There is an AG's opinion from 1993 that says that having such a display is all right depending on the way it's displayed," Naragon said. "For instance, here at the state Capitol, it is on the periphery of the grounds, it's not a centerpiece of the display and it is not in the Capitol building itself. So for those reasons, because it's a component of the Capitol's overall display celebrating all aspects of the holiday season, the secretary does feel it's appropriate."

... and in Ohio state parks
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's decision to allow Nativity displays in state parks has also drawn the ire of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has asked the state's chief watchdog to investigate whether his action was constitutional.

The group accuses Strickland of violating his oath of office to uphold the constitutions of Ohio and the United States by allowing the religious displays.

"Once the governor of Ohio enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, he strikes a blow at religious liberty by forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship," wrote Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, in a letter to Ohio Inspector General Tom Charles. Shawnee State Park in Scioto County in southern Ohio and Malabar Farm in Richland County in north-central Ohio had taken down manger scenes, depicting the birth of Christ in a stable, after a complaint.

Strickland, an ordained Methodist minister, instructed the parks to resurrect them. A Shawnee visitor had argued that large figures representing the Hindu and Zoroastrian religions should be displayed, too.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources sided with the visitor based on the principle of separation of church and state by banning the creches. Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey responded at the time by saying the governor decided the Nativity scenes should be restored to the state parks because they're appropriate and traditional.

He said a Zoroastrian symbol would not be acceptable, because it's not traditionally displayed for the holidays.

N.C. lobbyists warned not to send holiday cards to state officials
RALEIGH, N.C. — A new state law has reined in a tradition of the holiday season: the Christmas card.

North Carolina overhauled its ethics law last year to eliminate the perception that lobbyists influenced lawmakers and other state officials with expensive meals and gifts. The law defines a gift as "anything of monetary value given or received."

Staff at the state Ethics Commission have told lobbyists they can't send season's greetings to any of more than 4,000 people covered by the law in most cases. That includes Gov. Mike Easley, judges, state lawmakers, cabinet-level officials and appointees to commissions and boards.

The ethics commission based its informal advice on the 2006 ethics changes and amendments this year that banned those persons from accepting nearly all gifts from lobbyists.

"We're basically erring on the side of better safe than sorry," said Perry Newson, the commission's executive director. "We have to follow the law, and that's the difficult part."

The advice has meant fewer cards coming into some legislators' offices this year. It's also frustrated lobbyists who don't see anything wrong with sending best wishes to a legislator at the end of the year.

"None of us thought that a holiday greeting card that we had been sending out for 30 years would have some kind of implication," said Julia Leggett, a lobbyist with the Arc of North Carolina. "I don't think that's undue influence. I think that's common courtesy."

Leggett didn't know about the commission's advice until after she had sent cards on behalf of her group to all 170 members of the state Legislature.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is considering legal action after the holidays because the restriction looks unconstitutional, said Jennifer Rudinger, the chapter's executive director.

The policy is "a bit extreme," Rudinger said. "If all I want to do is send a card, it [would be] hard to find a court to say it would be an appropriate restriction of our free-speech rights."

Newson said it was debatable whether a signed Christmas, Hanukkah or other holiday card has monetary value to the person who received it, especially since it generally can't be reused.

The ethics law was amended this year to exempt specifically cards, flowers or charitable contributions in response to someone's death. The change followed confusion when people wanted to share condolences after the death of the wife of Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare.

There was no exception added for other kinds of cards, Newson said, leaving him with no choice but to discourage lobbyists from mailing holiday cards.

Lobbyists who have an outside relationship with a lawmaker or other elected official — through church membership, social or civic clubs — can still send cards.

"It's not accurate to say there's an overall holiday card ban," he said.

Susan Valauri, president of the N.C. Professional Lobbyists Association, said a member of the industry trade group learned of the restrictions in October. The association doesn't have an official position on the change.

The restriction has rubbed some state workers the wrong way, who complain Newson overreacted. The policy wasn't widely known until this week, when it was first reported in the Insider, a newsletter that covers state government.

No one will likely be punished for failing to follow Newson's advice because it's not a formal, written opinion. Lawmakers who receive a Christmas card have few easy ways to dispose of the gift. The options include returning it — at a cost of a 41-cent stamp — paying for the card or giving it to charity, according to the law.

Newson said the full ethics commission could consider formally changing its advice at its next meeting. Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, who helped shepherd this year's ethics amendments through the Legislature, said she expects lawmakers would exempt holiday cards when they reconvene in May.

"I doubt that anyone would be corrupted by a holiday card," she said.

Tenn. county employees spar over Kwanzaa invitation
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A fiery e-mail battle erupted among Shelby County employees this week after a commissioner invited them to a Kwanzaa celebration at the commission chambers.

Commissioner Henri Brooks sent an invitation to the event to county employees via e-mail.

The invitation offended probate court clerk Chris Thomas, who sent his own mass e-mail.

"I AM SORRY BUT WHY ARE WE SPONSORING A RELIGIOUS CEREMONY FOR ONE GROUP NOT CHRISTMAS AND HANNUKAH? I DO NOT THINK THIS IS APPROPRIATE!!!!!" he wrote, misspelling Hanukkah.

Kwanzaa celebrates black and African culture and is not religious. But that fact did not stop the flood of messages, some supporting Kwanzaa, others agreeing with Thomas. There were so many messages the county's technology department sent its own, this one reminding employees about the proper use of government e-mail.

But county officials say the celebration will go on as planned.

"My understanding is that Kwanzaa is not a religion or a religious movement," county attorney Brian Kuhn said.

Religious symbols, such as Nativity scenes, are not allowed on county property, but holiday parties and luncheons that aren't linked to specific religions are allowed.

Brooks is a Christian and celebrates Christmas as well as Kwanzaa.

"I just find it quite appalling that individuals who supposedly are educated elected officials would be so ignorant about a cultural celebration," she said.

The event will take place on Dec. 26 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in commission chambers. It's free and open to the public.

Editor's note: After this item was posted, Thomas filed a lawsuit to block the Kwanzaa party, arguing that he was denied permission to hold a Christmas event in a public building. But on Dec. 26 a judge refused Thomas' request, ruling that the celebration would not be a religious gathering.

Lawmaker casts protest vote against Christmas
WASHINGTON — A Democratic lawmaker, who voted against Christmas, said he was protesting an expected veto of a children's health-insurance bill when he opposed a resolution recognizing the importance of Christmas.

"While the Republicans are passing a resolution celebrating Christmas, the president was vetoing health care for children. There's a little bit of irony going on around here," Washington Rep. Jim McDermott said Dec. 13.

The Christmas measure was approved 372-9 on Dec. 11. Democrats cast all the no votes. Ten lawmakers voted "present." Forty lawmakers were absent for the vote.

McDermott said Bush's veto Dec. 12 meant that "10,000 kids in my state" would be left without health coverage. The veto was the second time Bush had  rejected a bipartisan effort in Congress to increase spending dramatically for the popular program.

"I guess I'm the only guy left in Congress who still gets angry, but there are some things that are just not right," McDermott said.

On that last point, at least, Republicans agreed.

"I think there's an anti-Christian bias," said Iowa Rep. Steve King, who sponsored the resolution. "I would not have thought that five or 10 years ago that we'd need to make a statement" affirming the importance of Christmas, the Dec. 25 holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and Christianity.

King's resolution stated that Christianity was the predominant faith in the United States and contributed greatly to the development of the country and Western civilization.

"I've watched Christ be eradicated by ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) lawsuits and people be afraid of confrontations. They wish (people) 'happy holidays' but not 'Merry Christmas' because they might be offended," King, a Republican, told a Seattle newspaper.

McDermott, in his 10th term, is revered by many of his liberal constituents in Seattle for his anti-war stance and other votes. But he is loathed by many conservatives, who call him "Baghdad Jim" owing to his prewar trip to Iraq, where he said he believed Saddam Hussein but not Bush.

McDermott said Dec. 13 that he expected to take political heat for his actions, but if it forces a discussion of Bush's veto, "then it was a good protest vote."

Washington state Capitol installs 1st Nativity display
OLYMPIA, Wash. — For the first time a Nativity display has been installed for Christmas at the Washington state Capitol, and it has a Pacific Northwest touch.

The Christ child in swaddling clothes, accompanied by 3-foot statues of Mary and Joseph, rests beneath a small cedar-shake roof in the creche that went on display Dec. 3 near the State Reception Room on the third floor, culminating a yearlong effort by real estate agent Ron Wesselius.

"I would like people to remember the true meaning of Christmas," Wesselius said.

Aided by the Alliance Defense Fund, which supports public displays of religion, Wesselius reached agreement in October with the Department of General Administration.

He sought permission in 2006 for a Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus after a menorah, the candelabrum widely used as a symbol of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, was placed in the Legislative Building, but officials said the request came too late in the year.

"The state ended up doing what was constitutionally right," Wesselius said.

Officials in the department said it was the first Nativity scene in the history of the Capitol. Other religious displays also may be allowed, depending on availability of space, said Sandra L. DeShaw, director of Capitol Visitors Service.

A menorah, installed by Chabad Lubavitch of Seattle, also was back in the Capitol for the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 4. Gov. Chris Gregoire lit the menorah Dec. 7, the same evening as the lighting of the nonreligious Holiday Tree, an annual project of the Association of Washington Business.

Green Bay council president provokes atheists with creche
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay City Council president paid for a Nativity scene to be put up at City Hall after learning of an anti-religion group's protest of one in Peshtigo.

Council president Chad Fradette told a city committee he believed the U.S. Constitution upholds citizens' right to display symbols of their religious beliefs on publicly owned property as long as they are not paid for with tax money and other faiths aren't excluded.

Courts including the U.S. Supreme Court have differed on the constitutionality of religious-holiday displays on public property.

The committee approved the Nativity scene, 4-1, on Dec. 11.

"So now the Freedom from Religion Foundation can pick on somebody a little larger than Peshtigo," Fradette told the committee.

The foundation, the nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics, objected that week to a Nativity display in a Peshtigo city park, saying it was illegal to erect it on public property and use tax money to light it. Peshtigo is about 40 miles northeast of Green Bay.

On Dec. 12, the group sent a letter to Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt objecting to the display as "inherently religious" and a violation of the separation of church and state.

"Displaying a crèche on the city hall building conveys the message that the City Council endorses Christianity," wrote Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation.

Schmitt did not object to the display at the committee's Dec. 11 meeting but urged it to draft rules on what could be included.

"It could get out of hand," he said.

Fradette had wanted to extend an invitation to all religions to put up displays, but committee members agreed a policy was needed to prevent people from testing the boundaries of taste. Fradette asked Schmitt for permission to put up his display while the council worked out those details.

"If you put it up, it's your risk," Schmitt said. "You may lose this thing, but if you want to put it up, I'm not going to not allow you to put the ladder up."

Fradette, council Vice President Chris Wery and two maintenance workers then spent about an hour installing a display that includes statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Peshtigo Mayor Thomas Strouf offered to pay the lighting bill for his city's display after the foundation objected to it. The local Chamber of Commerce owns and erected up the display, he said, although it is in a public park.

Later, the Nativity scene at Green Bay City Hall prompted a tongue-in-cheek request from a suburban man for permission to display a Festivus pole on the overhang of the building's northwest entrance.

The Festivus holiday created by author Daniel O'Keefe during the 1970s and popularized by comedian Jerry Seinfeld two decades later is celebrated by some both in earnest and jest on Dec. 23.

The request by Sean Ryan of Allouez was made the weekend after Fradette received the go-ahead to install the Nativity display at City Hall.

A practicing Catholic who would prefer to see no religious displays at a government office, Ryan said his request to put up an undecorated, six-foot aluminum pole was intended to showcase how deciding what religions to include in the display can turn to the absurd.

"I was turning over how extreme things could get and how loosely things could get interpreted," Ryan said.

"The real feat of strength would be for the mayor to stand up and say this is absurd," Ryan added. "Let us keep Nativity scenes where they belong in the churches, in our homes and in our hearts."

City adopts official declaration supporting Christmas
BRANSON, Mo. — City leaders voted officially to support Christmas celebrations that are part of holiday marketing for this Ozarks resort town.

The Branson board of aldermen first removed two sections that had called on local businesses and residents to put up decorations and to keep what it called the word and spirit of Christmas in the holiday.

The sections were removed after the city attorney warned it could open Branson to lawsuits over separation of church and state.

The resolution passed unanimously Dec. 10. It states the board's support for the celebration of Ozark Mountain Christmas, the marketing slogan for a mix of Christmas shows and decorations offered for the holidays.


Related

Merry generic holidays?

News, commentary, research on disputes over how Christmas, other holidays should be celebrated in public schools, public square. 12.05.05

Christmas trees going back up at Sea-Tac
Rabbi who wanted menorah added to airport displays says he never wanted trees taken down. 12.12.06

Wis. lawmaker seeks to ax state's 'holiday' tree
Public hearing turns contentious as legislators, residents discuss state Rep. Marlin Schneider's plan to rename conifer 'Wisconsin State Christmas Tree.' 12.01.07

Oklahoma City to settle lawsuit over religious displays in city offices
Attorneys fees to be paid for employees who challenged policy; city to clarify rules regarding religious expression, decorations in workplace. 02.21.08

The war over Christmas: Who’s fighting and why?
By Charles C. Haynes This year the Christmas crusaders appear to be winning: Holiday is out, Christmas is in. 12.11.05

To save Christmas, separate Christ from commerce
By Charles C. Haynes First Amendment may keep government from promoting the sacred Christmas, but it doesn’t prevent society from appropriating it for secular ends. 12.25.05

Ten Commandments, other displays & mottos

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