Sonoma California Re-Ignites Christmas Controversy

Some people were already calling it the “Creche War” before Wednesday night’s City Council convened. There were expectations that angry words would fill the air.

But by the time a succession of concerned citizens had each finished their allotted three minutes at the podium during an 80-minute public hearing, there was a minimum of verbal bloodshed and a lot of thoughtful soul-searching.

The subject was a proposed revision in city policy governing the presence of religious displays on the Plaza. New Councilmember August Sebastiani, a Catholic who made clear his intention to re-open the issue before taking office last December, requested a legal opinion from city attorney Tom Curry to determine if a traditional Christmas crèche, or any other religious display, could be legally accommodated on public property.

Curry’s carefully crafted opinion confirmed that a constitutionally defensible policy could be adopted, but not without “the high risk of litigation.”
In a prepared statement at the start of the public hearing, Sebastiani insisted his proposed policy would not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. “By no means does it attempt to establish any religion,” he read. “By no means does it prohibit the free exercise or enjoyment of religion. To the contrary, it strives to provide our community with an outlet to express and celebrate its beliefs, whatever they are.”

And in anticipation of threatened lawsuits, Sebastiani added, “It is not our job to live in fear of legal action. It is not our job to live in fear of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).”

As if rising to the challenge, frequent council critic Dave Henderson read from a four-page prepared statement critiquing the proposed policy and concluding with the promise he would “formally request,” that ACLU attorneys review any policy adopted by the Council, “and if constitutional problems are found, to proceed with litigation.”

Henderson also questioned why the proposed policy was labeled a “Holiday Display Policy,” when it appeared to refer only to a time of year when Christian (and Jewish) holidays occur. He also questioned whether Sebastiani’s preferred display site – on the horseshoe in front of City Hall – wouldn’t indicate city sponsorship.
Of the 20 speakers to address the council, eight clearly supported Sebastiani’s proposal, 11 opposed it, and the rest expressed painfully mixed feelings.

They included Steve McHan, pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and president of the Sonoma Valley Ministerial Association. McHan reported that members of the group held “a diverse range of opinion. We are not united as yet.”

Speaking for himself, said McHan, “I’m conflicted and I wish I weren’t.” McHan said a part of him “is extremely cautious about how we use our freedom and the belief there could be unanticipated consequences were we to open the Plaza.”
Retired minister David McCracken who explained he was pastoring in 1990 when the last crèche controversy erupted, said, “I don’t want to go through this whole thing again. It was very divisive.” McCracken added he would “behoove the council to have someone meet with the ministerial association,” before adopting a new policy.

One of the more passionate podium voices belonged to Don Sebastiani, the wine entrepreneur and father of August, who earlier commissioned a private and controversial survey of Sonomans that revealed 72 percent of respondents favored a policy allowing religious displays on the Plaza.

Don Sebastiani argued that without the Plaza there is no common ground for Sonomans to visit where they can join in celebrating Christmas. “If they can’t go down to the town commons to celebrate their faith, where can they do it?” he asked. “If you take away the right of freedom of religious expression, what will you take away next?”
Some speakers had less reverent and more caustic reactions to the Plaza proposal. Fred Berger suggested people who want a public crèche should put one on a flatbed truck. You could have, he said, “a crechemobile, You call a number and the crèche will come to your house.”

Beverly Calkovsky asked if there is a clear separation between church and state, “Why are city offices closed on Christmas Day? Where is the separation then?”

Sam Digiacomo said he was a practicing Catholic who attends daily Mass, “But I have no dog in this hunt. I don’t worship statues.”
On the other side of the issue, Tom Keaney, a member of the Knights of Columbus who attempted unsuccessfully to submit a permit request for a Christmas display, said “There can be a miracle on the Plaza if you have the courage to hear the voice of over 70 percent of the people who say … let it be done.”

The council response seemed to almost surprise the members of the council. Ken Brown, after worrying aloud about the cost of potential litigation, observed that “Every Christmas Santa comes in a firetruck – there’s a Christmas tree on City Hall every year – that reflects a Christian heritage. We have an Easter Egg hunt on the Plaza – that reflects Christian belief … Things only come into conflict if we allow them to … If we have an open heart and an open mind, we can figure this out.”

To one degree or another that spirit prevailed. Joanne Sanders confessed she had come prepared to oppose the policy but that she was also deeply conflicted. “Not one person addressed us that I didn’t agree with. Every comment that was made resonated.”
Only Mayor Stanley Cohen came down firmly against the proposal. “I think the crèche is a religious symbol,” he said.

Ultimately, on a quiet 4-1 vote, the council instructed Curry to fashion another draft of the proposed policy reflecting the expressed concerns for future council review.

The crèche war turned out to be a skirmish that may yet give birth to a policy.

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