Christmas flap gets Palm Beach Post coverage, but it's wreathed in questions

"All politics is local," goes a saying often attributed to "Tip O'Neill Jr. Much the same could be said of the so-called War on Christmas -- as in West Palm Beach, where a condo association threatened a resident for hanging a wreath on her door.

The Palm Beach Post takes a look in a story that is at once flawed and laudable. The rather preachy lede says:

Donna Sozzio’s “infraction” — placing a wreath on her condo door.
In these days when religious tolerance is such an issue, the resident of West Palm’s Lands of the President complex can’t understand why she should face a $100 a day fine for displaying a symbol of her faith. The condo rule violates her religious freedoms, she says.

The paper then spells out the condo rule at the Lands of the President Condo: no changes to "exterior surfaces" without written approval of the board. Balconies, yes, until New Year. But "hallways must be free of any decoration."

Sozzio's reaction: "I feel like I’m being bullied. It’s very intimidating."

She tossed the first notice away a couple of weeks ago because she thought it was ridiculous. When the second one came on Thursday, she pulled down the wreath, afraid they’d come after her for the money. But she replaced it with a small cross.

Controversies over Christmas displays are, of course, a staple of December coverage. Just in Florida, at least two other cities -- Plantation and Jacksonville -- are seeing their own flaps. But most such debates fall into two categories: public displays of nativity scenes and megawatt home shows that snarl traffic. The one in West Palm Beach is interesting for focusing on a homeowners' association taking down a single seasonal decoration. It's interesting also for the religious and legal angles, as we'll see.

But ah-ahhh, condo guys, you're on Santa's naughty list for dodging an interview. The condo association manager merely left a phone message with the newspaper, saying the rule is only meant to restrict the size of items, regardless of religion.  When you hide behind voicemail and email, you essentially hand over the story to your opponent.

But the Post adroitly reaches out to someone else, right in West Palm Beach: a specialist in state condo law (Did you know that's a specialty in itself?):

Florida condo law allows religious displays on doors, within size limits, says Michael Chapnick, a property owner association lawyer based in West Palm Beach.
“An association may not refuse a request of a unit owner for a reasonable accommodation for the attachments on the mantle or frame of the door of the unit owner of a religious object not to exceed 3 inches wide, 6 inches high, and 1 1/2 inches deep,” according to Section 718.113 of Florida Statutes.
That law stemmed from a Miami case several years ago in which a condo association prohibited an owner from putting up a mezuzah, Chapnick says.

How does Donna Sozzio take this? Not well. She does everything but allege discrimination on the basis of religion. She says, for one, that the cross on her door is higher than six inches, and the association hasn't told her to remove that. (But she admits that she hasn't told the condo association about it.)

She adds: “Based on our constitution of our Founding Fathers, we have the right to express our religious beliefs as we see fit. To me, by not being able to have this wreath, it’s limiting the freedom of speech. To me it represents Jesus being born. It’s what our faith is based on and you’re removing that. You’re tampering with what I believe in."

So, good basic reporting by the Post. But it still leaves some holes.

In the accompanying video, Sozzio's wreath appears to be well over the legal limit for width and depth. The Post doesn't ask her about that.

She also shows a mezuzah on a neighbor's door, one of several in the building. "I'm fine with that," she says. "I'm proud to be a Christian. Why is it OK for one and it's not OK for me?" And the mezuzah she shows doesn't look taller than six inches.

Why didn’t the Post ask the neighbor about wreaths and mezuzot? After all, the reporter was apparently right there. Just knock and see if someone is home.

The newspaper cites Sozzio as saying she "quizzed doormen at several other buildings in the complex and learned no one else banned wreaths." So, Post, why not ask 'em? You were already on the premises.

And why not talk to Sozzio's pastor? What church does she attend, anyway? Does it have a stance on Christmas displays? Did it put up one of its own?

Finally, where are the viewpoints on this matter by church-state groups? Florida is home to some vigorous advocates, on left and right alike. One is the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, which has an office in West Palm Beach. Another is the conservative Liberty Counsel, based in Orlando. Leaders of each outfit are not shy about returning media calls.

Tempest in a teapot, you may say. But such teapots often boil over into public affairs, especially when they recur every year. This is, after all, the age of Google and advocacy organizations. Questions of Christmas displays and religious free speech may start local, but they have a way of spreading. And if the media don't help us understand them, who will?

Thumb: Christmas wreath with a bow, photographed by MarkBuckawicki via Public domain photo.

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