Calif. county rescinds ornament ban after outcry
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The top official in California's Sonoma County has rescinded a ban on stars and angels on Christmas trees in county buildings.
After a barrage of criticism, Administrator Chris Thomas today reversed his order banning the ornaments two days earlier. He apologized in an e-mail to employees for “any inconvenience and disruption.”
“You are encouraged to use your best judgment with respect to appropriate decorations for our public spaces,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas' ban order was prompted by a complaint from Santa Rosa resident Irv Sutley, who says the county should not show favoritism to any religion. Sheryl Bratton, an attorney for the county, had said the county risked a lawsuit even if the ornaments were legal.
Local church leaders spoke out against the ban, and at least one county employee openly defied the order. Public defender Barry Collins, who is Jewish, erected a Christmas tree adorned with a star in the lobby window of his office. He called the ban ridiculous and said his office's mission was to represent those whose constitutional rights are infringed.
Thomas' decision came after county supervisor Shirlee Zane sent him an e-mail arguing the ban was a decision that should involve the full board of supervisors. “The fact we have a star on the Christmas tree in front of the White House tells me this not a hard and fast issue,” Zane said.
The Supreme Court has ruled that governments can display Christmas trees but cannot support Christian doctrine.
Sutley said he would consult with attorneys before deciding whether to sue. He called the reversal a “real slap in the face to agnostics, atheists and every person who believes in the separation of church and state.”