Freedom Writer - December 1994 [ref001] The GrinchEight years later By Valerie White, Esq.
Freedom Writer - December 1994
The GrinchEight years later
By Valerie White, Esq.
In December of 1986, I began my career as the grinch who stole Christmas.
A friend and I complained to county and village officials in Hyde
Park, Vermont, the little town where I practice law, that the more-than-a-quarter-century-old
tradition of decorating the village Christmas tree on the courthouse
lawn with a lighted cross was unconstitutional. And tactless. "It's
not a religious symbol," we were told. "It's a memorial for a local
hero." But it conveys a wrong impression, we argued. It gives Jews
and Jehovah's Witnesses and Zen Buddhists and atheists and Christians
the feeling that their courthouse is a Christian place.
The officials were unpersuaded.
I turned to the ACLU. (My friend has children in the school system
and we agreed that I would carry on alone.) The ACLU lawyer wrote
the officials. Their lawyer advised them. And in December of 1987
the cross topped the tree again, this time with a little sign at the
foot of the tree: "The presence of any religious symbol on this secular
display is not intended as an endorsement of religion." I filed in
Federal Court for an injunction. The officials promptly erected a
lighted Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus, hoping to escape through
the plastic reindeer loophole created by the United States Supreme
Court in the Pawtucket case.
I began my Warholian 15 minutes of fame. "Donahue." "Sally Jesse Rafael."
_The_New_York_Times_, _The_Boston_Globe_, _The_Village_Voice_, _The_
LA_Times_, radio, including West German Radio and the BBC. The Freedom
From Religion Foundation made me Freethinker of the Year. I got mountains
of mail, more pro than con. One letter was addressed, "The Cross Lady,
Hyde Park." The post office put it in my box.
We went to court on December 1, 1987 for the preliminary injunction
hearing. My attorneys were superb. Jonathan Chase, former dean of
the Vermont Law School, ably drafted the pleadings but died of leukemia
before the hearing. John Schullenberger, dedicated, diligent, knowledgeable,
and able to keep cool under pressure, argued at the hearing. We won.
The magistrate recommended the injunction be issued. The county and
village gave in. They stipulated to an injunction. The court awarded
The courthouse tree every year since has gleamed its pagan lights
amid the snow without a cross. And I can walk up the slippery sidewalk
beside it with a solstice glow in my humanist heart that the Establishment
Clause is alive and well in the U.S. District Court for the district
Some time during the fray, I wrote some new words to "The Old Rugged
Cross." I sang them for the Freedom From Religion Foundation when
I accepted their award.
Then the ditty found its way onto the information superhighway through
Larry Reyka's Little Coffeehouse, the humanist BBS. Then it escaped
to a real coffeehouse in Columbus. And I learned the song was sung
at the cabaret at the American Humanist Association meeting in Detroit.
As for me, my life has changed since 1986. I have become active in
the freethought and humanist movement, and in the ACLU. Most of my
neighbors have forgiven me. But the case has had one interesting effect.
During the litigation, community support for the cross was overwhelming.
A local florist made up greenery crosses threaded with fairy lights
and displayed them with the sign, "Show your support." People made
their own. Lighted crosses went up on the feed store elevator, the
drive-in, the antique store, the beauty parlor, silos, barns, and
private homes all over the county.
I've thought they would slowly disappear. But last Christmas I counted
25 lighted across on private property all over the county. I'll bet
Lamoille County, Vermont is the only place in the country where Christmas
is celebrated with so many lighted crosses. And isn't that a wonderful
demonstration of the Free Exercise Clause!
Sidebar: [ref002]"The Old Lighted Cross"
Sidebar: [ref003]What does the Supreme Court say?
[ref004][ref005] Return to table of contents
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