Christmas symbols back on display in Oklahoma City office

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

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

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

“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 …
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

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

… 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

“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

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

“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
— A fiery e-mail battle erupted among Shelby County employees this week after a
commissioner invited them to a Kwanzaa celebration at the commission

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.

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

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
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

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
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

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

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

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

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
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

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

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
— 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.

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