Colorado Christmas Debate Now Targets Free Speech

Only in politically correct Colorado could a raging debate about Christmas now become the focus of free speech from public officials on a county website.

Online comments by Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden about putting up a Christmas tree outside his office’s administrative building could have ramifications beyond the holiday season.

Commissioner Kathay Rennels said the time has come to discuss whether the county’s Web site should be used to air personal opinions, as Alderden does through “The Bulls-eye” Web page. Its subtitle is “Straight shooting from the sheriff.”

Alderden’s latest commentary, posted Wednesday, roundly criticized the Fort Collins’ Holiday Display Task Force and its recommendations to the City Council on the use of seasonal symbols and lighting on city property.

The piece includes references to Alderden’s religious beliefs and the statement, “Most of the members of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office are Christians and celebrate Christmas.”

“The Bulls-eye” might be getting “close to the line” in terms of what’s appropriate when posting information on a taxpayer-funded Web site, Rennels said.

“The subject matter aside, I think it’s time to check in with elected officials and taxpayers on if they are OK with this,” Rennels said. “I think we need to have that conversation.”

Alderden said he uses the page, which started in the spring, to keep the public informed on law enforcement issues. He’s used the site to expound on a variety of issues, including how the commissioners fund public safety.

Other elected officials use the county’s site to express opinions and promote pet issues, he said.

“I think it’s a perfectly legitimate way to communicate with the public,” Alderden said.

But Howard Cohen, a member of the Holiday Display Task Force, said he found the Web site and Alderden’s comments and religious references “disturbing.”

“I don’t think this should be on a government site,” he said. “He’s entitled to his opinion; but when something like this shows up on larimer.org, it makes it look like it’s the county’s opinion.’’

Cohen said Alderden’s contention that the task force is trying to “take Christ out of Christmas” is unfounded. The group’s recommendations are meant to recognize the diversity of religious beliefs and holiday customs of community residents, Cohen said.

Putting up a Christmas tree, as Alderden plans to do with decorations donated by residents, is not an issue, Cohen said. But the sheriff should not promote a single religion if it’s on public property, he said.

Alderden’s online posting mentioned no religion other than Christianity and no holiday tradition other than Christmas. But he said he has no problem displaying symbols from faiths other than Christianity.

“If somebody wants to put up a menorah, I’m fine with that,” he said. “We’re trying to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

The county does not have a written policy on holiday decorations, County Manager Frank Lancaster said. Department heads and elected officials have discretion in what may be displayed but are asked to be sensitive to cultural issues.

A Christmas tree does not raise constitutional issues as long as the display “does not cross the line” by showing preference to a specific religion, Lancaster said.

Given the ongoing controversy over holiday displays on public property, Rennels said the county may have to come up with a written policy.

Principal Cites Parental Objections to Christmas Play

An elementary school principal’s decision to cancel a class field trip to see a Christmas play in downtown Boston has sparked controversy in one Boston-area town.

Principal Evander French Jr. canceled his school’s seventh-grade’s field trip to see “Miracle on 34th Street” after some parents complained that the play focused too much on Santa Claus, the Boston Herald reported.

French, the principal of the McCall Middle School, decided against letting the students attend the Dec. 19 performance at the Stoneham Theater, saying some parents complained that it didn’t tie into the school’s curriculum and parents could take their children to see the play on their own.

The Herald reported that many parents are not happy, even though they were reimbursed for the $20 ticket, saying if other parents didn’t want their children to attend the play they didn’t have to go.

The principal said he received an e-mail last week saying the play’s Santa theme was “objectionable” to some in the school community.

Fort Collins Decides Colored Christmas Lights OK

Colored holiday lights, Christmas trees and wreaths will stay.

The Fort Collins Museum will add a multicultural display and the debate over appropriate city holiday displays will move forward.

By a 6-1 vote Tuesday night, the Fort Collins City Council rejected key recommendations of a citizen task force in adopting a plan that combines some task force suggestions with current city policy and some new wrinkles.

The hybrid plan allows for colored lights and Christmas trees and wreaths on the exterior of city buildings and other city property, but allows for only secular displays and messages in building interiors. Religious and cultural symbols are allowed under the plan at locations other than the museum but only if part of a larger, educational piece of artwork.

The new holiday display policy also stipulates the addition of a cultural display on or around museum grounds that could include nonsecular symbols.

The policy doesn’t take effect until next year and does not include Old Town Square.

Council member Wade Troxell, who cast the lone “no” vote, said he couldn’t support the display policy because it didn’t do enough to address the issue of being as inclusive as possible.

“I think we still have a way to go because we didn’t address (how to include) the menorah in city displays (outside of the museum),” Troxell said. “That is still out there, as are other questions about an inclusive Christmas display. I think the museum is fine in terms of offering a comparative religious display but doesn’t capture what the citizens of Fort Collins want.”

Some members of the 15-seat citizen task force, which made recommendations last week to ban colored lights and Christmas tree displays from the exterior of city buildings, called the outcome a victory for Fort Collins.

“I think it’s a positive step forward,” task force member Karen Schwartz said. “My only disappointment is that conversation on broader displays within the interior of buildings to include multicultural (aspects) was not discussed.”

After the task force, which was appointed in August by the city manager to review the city’s holiday display policy and recommend modifications, released its report and recommendations Nov. 6, the council asked for a hybrid version that tied portions of the task force’s work with the city’s current policy.

Primarily, the council stripped task force language that called for white lights and “secular winter symbols not associated with a particular holiday” on most of city property and building exteriors – save for the museum – and replaced it with allowances for colored lights and trees, specifically including Christmas trees.

The council ignored task force suggestions that would have given department directors the ability to erect cultural or religious displays inside city buildings and instead adopted a plan that would allow white or colored lights, secular winter symbols, trees, written secular messages and community artwork.

More than 40 people spoke to council during the public comment period before the vote, with all but a handful of them speaking out against the task force recommendations.

Some said Christmas is a tradition in Fort Collins, and any attempts to limit it through restrictive holiday display policies would be wrong.

“I am pleading with council to afford Christmas the dignity it deserves,” said Neil McCaffrey, adding he didn’t believe attempts to include Christmas in multicultural displays was right. “Don’t lump (Christmas) together with other celebrations, because it diminishes the dignity of the (holiday).”

Mayor Doug Hutchinson, the subject of much criticism over the issue in recent weeks, said the issue has hurt Fort Collins’ reputation and image.

“I think this is a very strong success story,” Hutchinson said after the vote, calling the multicultural display at the museum a positive new step for Fort Collins. “I think there is going to be a residual effect from this, though. The traditional Christmas displays were never in jeopardy, but it came across that way because of misinformation in the media.”

Hutchinson later explained that he meant that it was never the council’s intent to put Christmas displays in jeopardy by forming the task force.

“But, of course, the task force recommendations put Christmas in jeopardy,” Hutchinson said.

Fight Brewing in Pennsacola Schools Over ‘Christmas Break’

For decades they’ve called it “Christmas Break” in Pennsacola, Florida. But the school board there is suddenly in a heated debate over the possible change in the calendars to the term “Winter Break”.

“It has been ‘Christmas Break,’ and then it has been ‘Winter Break,’ and I know last year it was ‘Christmas Break,’ ” Alan Scott, assistant superintendent for human-resource services, said after the meeting. “It just depends on the wishes of the board and the superintendent when we bring this issues forward. I know this superintendent and board tend to have the presence of Christmas break as their preference.”

Bergosh found the issue to be larger than a semantic preference.

Bergosh excused himself from the meeting several hours early, but he later said during a phone interview that for many years the vacation was called “Christmas Break” and that he thought the name needed to be restored.

During the workshop, School Board Attorney Donna Waters told the board she soon plans to meet with an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that protects the rights of all Americans including religious rights of students.

“I brought it up because it is something we need to consider as we decide what we’re going to call things,” she said. “In an abundance of caution, I want to make sure we don’t do something that’s not inclusive.”

Liberty Counsel’s Naughty List of Retailers Shunning Christmas

Liberty Counsel, an advocacy group supporting traditional family values, just published their 5th Annual Naughty & Nice List highlighting those retailers avoiding use of the word “Christmas”. The aim of the campaign is to draw attention to the slow decay of support of Christmas as a religious celebration in America. Here are this year’s offenders:

1. Ace Hardware
2. Banana Republic
3. Bloomingdale’s
4. Circuit City
5. Dick’s Sporting Goods
6. Gap
7. Giant Eagle Pharmacy
8. Hollister Co.
9. Home Depot
10. J. Crew Outfitters
11. Kmart
12. Kohls
13. Lane Bryant
14. Marshalls
15. Nordstrom
16. Office Max
17. Old Navy
18. Petsmart
19. Sears
20. Shopko
21. Sprint