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 attorney fees.
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 of Vermont.
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!