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.

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