Merry Christmas, Irv Sutley!

grinchAh, yes, fewer than two shopping days 48 hours left to fire your salvo in the 2009 Christmas wars! To that end, The New York Times has a colorful little report on an order to remove seasonal religious symbols displayed in a public building and California. Only this time, there was no cross, creche or menorah:

"I was turning around in the lobby, and I noticed the tree," Mr. Sutley said. "And then, I noticed the angel."

Mr. Sutley, an atheist, said he then went to the office of the county Board of Supervisors. "And there was a star," he said.

Technically, neither stars nor angels belong to any particular religion. But to the mind of Mr. Sutley, 65, a veteran who has fought to keep religion out of public meetings and buildings, the symbolism was clear.

"For most people, a star atop a tree at this time of season represents the star of Bethlehem, which is a cult symbol, the cult being Christianity," he said, adding that the government should be neutral on religion.

As a Christian, I happen to be extremely skeptical of civil religion -- so I'm not altogether unsympathetic to those who want to draw strict lines between the state and religion. Though as pragmatic matter, I don't often see the harm in letting community standards guide such decisions. But California holiday protester Irv Sutley's objection to the use of stars seems to be really reaching. The Times gives us a bit of perspective:

Mr. Thomas cited a 1989 Supreme Court decision, Allegheny v. A.C.L.U., which stated that while Christmas trees could be seen as secular, they could also be seen as religious if decorated with religious symbols.

All of which pleased Mr. Sutley, who said he had found about a half-dozen other stars around the building in Santa Rosa. He said he found none in the social services department, in which he found a religious placard during the holidays last year. (It, too, was removed.)

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the article is how subtle, yet effective, it is in portraying Sutley as an insufferable busybody who patrols public buildings making sure they don't offend his strict sensibilities. (Note the "All of which pleased Mr. Sutley...") However, the reporter finally tips his hand a bit in the final graf:

Readers of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which first reported the county's decision on Monday, were mostly naughty, not nice, in their comments. "I hope," one reader wrote, "a reindeer runs Irv Sutley over."

Now I'm not sure I entirely approve of the ethics involved in shading a story this way, but as a journalist I have to tell you this involves real skill and craft. If you can write a story such as this one that is so defensibly straightforward and still wink to the reader about what you really think -- it's impressive.

And finally, it's worth highlighting the fact that the reporter here with the Christmas spirit is writing for The New York Times! I didn't see that coming.

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