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Sheryl Bishop makes an adjustment to the tree in the Communications Department at the Sonoma County Administration Center. A star was removed from the top of the tree. The office is not open to the public.

Sonoma County's ornament ban on Christmas trees in county buildings sparks public outcry

O holy outcry.

The decision by Sonoma County's top official to ban stars and angels from Christmas trees in all county buildings drew heated public reaction Tuesday and complaints the action was made in haste and without legal authority.

Dozens of Press Democrat readers, some using language unfit for midnight Mass, painted the decision as an affront to the holiday spirit and to common sense.

They also had choice words for Acting County Administrator Chris Thomas, who ordered the removals Monday, and for Irv Sutley, the 65-year-old disabled veteran and atheist activist whose complaints sparked the controversial action.

"To make an ordeal out of a little doll with a wreath is beyond me," said Mike Cronin, assistant manager of John Deere Landscaping in Santa Rosa. "It made me feel that this country is getting really picky."

But Dolores Marconi, who lives in Glenhaven in Lake County, defended Sutley's actions, saying they honor the Constitution by preventing the government from arbitrary displays of religious items.

"I have Christmas decorations at my house, but that's where they belong," she said.

Sutley, who has a long history of waging battles to get religion out of government, was an unlikely media star Tuesday, granting numerous interviews to the likes of Fox News and The New York Times.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, he praised the county for not "stalling" on his complaints and for "doing the right thing."

"People can worship in their homes. They can celebrate Christmas in their church. They can do all that," he said. "They just don't have the right to intrude on government property."

After two messages sent to Thomas seeking comment Tuesday, the county administrator sent an e-mail late in the day saying he'd "been on the run" and suggested trying to reach him Wednesday.

Thomas based his decision to order the removal of the angels and stars on a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case in which justices ruled that government may celebrate Christmas in some form but not if it endorses Christian doctrine.

Thomas essentially agreed with Sutley that the stars that topped trees in the lobbies of several county departments and angel figurines placed on trees and on office doors were religious in nature.

That was a surprise to many county employees.

"Angels and stars aren't very religious," said John Tierman, who works in the probation department and identifies himself as Catholic. "People are way too sensitive."

Troye Shaffer, a deputy district attorney, said she felt that angel decorations represented hope and peace and doesn't view them as religious.

"If angels are bad, wouldn't the whole Christmas tree be bad?" Shaffer said.

Lou Maricle, the county's communications manager, said he did not take issue when Sutley on Friday demanded that he remove an angel on the door to the office.

But Maricle said he balked at removing a star on the tree, which Sutley contended symbolized the Jewish Star of David.

"When he said &‘I demand you take the angel off,' I said, &‘No problem,'" Maricle said. "But when he wanted us to take down the star I said, &‘Wait a minute, it's not even a six-pointed star.'"

After Sutley took his complaints to the city administrator's office, Thomas consulted with Chief Deputy County Counsel Sheryl Bratton about the legal issues involved.

Bratton said that after she reviewed case law, including the 1989 Supreme Court case, she delivered a mixed opinion to Thomas, telling him the county might win a court challenge, or not.

"I think the county could have taken either approach, but there was a risk we would have to spend time and resources to defend a lawsuit," Bratton said Tuesday.

Supervisor Paul Kelley, the board's most conservative member, said Tuesday that Thomas made a "sound legal decision" based on the advice he got from Bratton.

But Kelley said he personally would not have made the same decision.

"It's my personal opinion that it was unnecessary to remove the particular items that were removed really based on one person's complaint," he said.

Kelley said he heard from many of his constituents who were upset about the county's actions. He said the board may have to take up the issue following the winter break. Starting Thursday, all county offices will be shut down until Jan. 4 as a cost-savings measure.

Rex Grady, a Santa Rosa attorney who teaches constitutional law at Empire College School of Law, criticized Thomas' decision and said he believes the county would have prevailed on a court challenge.

He cited another Supreme Court case in 1984 in which justices ruled that a municipal government's holiday display, which included figures of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, constituted a celebration of Christmas but was not an official endorsement of religion or a particular faith.

"In light of the Court's traditional analytical approach to public displays of religious iconography, figures of angels and images of stars, without any overt reference to any particular religion, most likely would not be found by the Supreme Court to offend Constitutional standards," Grady wrote in an e-mail to The Press Democrat.

According to Maricle, the county's communications staff brought the tree decorations in themselves and decorated the office during a holiday potluck, and not on county time.

Grady said that potentially raises the issue of whether these employees' First Amendment rights were violated by the order to take the items down.

"It is possible the County committed a greater violation of the Constitution in its effort to avoid what most likely was not a violation at all," he said. "If true, how ironic."

It's hard to say whether the county's action will have any bearing on other local government agencies. Several Sonoma County cities, including Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale, have no Christmas trees displayed at city headquarters, in some cases for budget reasons related to the cost of purchasing trees.

In Sonoma, a tree at City Hall is decorated with lights. In Santa Rosa, trees at City Hall are not adorned with anything religious in nature, according to City Manager Jeff Kolin.

Elsewhere around the country, public holiday displays have become an issue in many communities.

Two weeks ago, an elementary school principal in Ashland, Ore., reversed her decision to remove a Christmas tree in the school's lobby after a student complained that the tree symbolized one religious faith. The "giving tree" was re-erected, along with the names of needy children asking for presents, following an outcry at the principal's actions.

In 2007, Sonoma City Councilman August Sebastiani led an unsuccessful effort to bring a Nativity scene back to the city's Plaza.

The city had permitted a Nativity scene for decades before the council voted in 1990 to ban any displays of solely religious messages, a decision that followed a Supreme Court ruling against a creche in a Pennsylvania county courthouse.

On Tuesday, Sebastiani noted that a private entity had sought to put the Nativity scene on public property, which he said is different from government employees erecting trees at county offices. His feeling is that if people can advocate for secular causes at the Plaza, so, too, should those bearing religious messages.

In general, Sebastiani said he's frustrated by what he views as the establishment of a secular religion in public spaces.

"The discussion that has evolved is for no form of religious expression at all. That's where the frustration comes in for me," he said.

Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shromei Torah in Santa Rosa said that he's not offended by stars and angels appearing on Christmas trees at government offices.

"My ultimate preference would be for religion and state, including cultural expressions of religion, to be separated. But the truth is that is not the American way," he said.

He said he's more concerned about religious symbols appearing in classrooms where "kids are captive and they can really feel alienated."

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Derek J. Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.

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