Residents Sue Over Religious Tree Ornaments

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - What's wrong with placing a "God Bless America" ornament on the "holiday tree" in Wisconsin's capital? Eight Wisconsin residents are suing state and local officials in federal court for refusing to allow religious-themed ornaments to be placed on the tree in Madison.

The public interest law firm that is representing the families -- the Family and Freedom Foundation - says the policy is unconstitutional and violates the plaintiffs' rights to freedom of speech and religion.

They want the federal court to declare the state's holiday tree a "limited public forum" where citizens are free to express their views.

Family and Freedom Foundation General Counsel Michael Dean said the Wisconsin Department of Administration invited people to place handmade ornaments on the tree, leaving the ornament guidelines up to state bureaucrats. The bureaucrats - state clerks, in this case -- stipulated that the ornaments should not be religious in nature.

The lawsuit targets state Department of Administration Secretary George Lightbourn and the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association.

"I wrote a letter to the Secretary of Administration George Lightbourn, copied the clerks, the governor, and several people advising them that the policy was unconstitutional, and asking them to retract it," Dean said. "I talked briefly to Secretary Lightbourn, who said that he did not know what he was going to do."

Dean said he took exception to the contents of a letter between Lightbourn and the municipal clerks.

According to Dean, the letter from the state said the department would accept ornaments of any type. "However, it leaves it up to the clerks what to accept or reject," he said. "The clerks have published that "no religious ornaments" criteria and have never retracted it."

A lawyer with the Department of Administration said it does not have a policy prohibiting religious ornaments from appearing on the state's holiday tree.

"We accept all types of ornaments, so we haven't understood why it was necessary to file a lawsuit," said department legal counsel John Rothschild. "That (the refusal of religious ornaments) happened before the letter went out to clarify that in fact we have no policy," regarding religious ornaments.

"It seems like we don't have a whole lot to argue about here," Rothschild said.

But Dean said the letter from the Department of Administration to local officials also contained instructions that clerks should be "concerned with local concerns and sensitivities."

"That is known as a heckler's veto, which means you have a right to speak unless somebody gets upset about it," he said. "Government cannot discriminate based on the content or viewpoint."

Officials with the Wisconsin Clerks Association were not available for comment.

According to Dean, the U.S. District Court in Madison, Wis. is expected to rule on an injunction Nov. 21 as to whether ornaments with religious themes will be accepted.