Dog in the Manger

For the first time this century, Denver's baby Jesus can remain asleep on the hay, undisturbed in the reflected, garish glory of the City and County Building's annual display.

And the City of Denver can rest easy this month, too, since no civil libertarians or religious activists plan to play the Grinch. In fact, Denver's holiday display could be contention-free for the first time since attorney Bob Tiernan and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit in November 1999, requesting that the FFRF be allowed to place a sign -- reading, in part, "no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven and hell" -- on the steps of City Hall as part of that year's scene. After the Tenth Circuit Court ruled in July 2001 that the display was not a public forum and thus no additional signage was needed to separate church from state, Tiernan et al. decided to give it a rest. "Maybe we ought to go to a different jurisdiction," Tiernan muses today.

Electrician John Malpeide started Denver's tradition when he illuminated a tree in Civic Center Park 69 years ago. That simple gesture became much more elaborate after its move to the City and County Building in 1935. But it wasn't until two decades ago that the spectacle came under fire. In 1979, the Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church and State sued the City of Denver to have the Nativity scene removed, claiming that the figures showed a governmental preference for one religion. In 1984, budget-conscious citizens in an increasingly cash-poor Denver complained of the display's costs. That problem was solved when the new Keep the Lights Foundation agreed to raise the $100,000 needed annually to erect, maintain and disassemble the 20,000 lightbulbs and five miles of electrical wire -- and keep them juiced from Thanksgiving through the National Western Stock Show run. In 1985, after a great deal of legal rumination, the Colorado Supreme Court decided the crèche was constitutional -- as long as the Nativity scene was accompanied by what have become standard secular accoutrements.

And now the Anti-Defamation League, an 88-year-old organization that combats anti-Semitism and bigotry, has established guidelines for confused cities facing the "December dilemma" -- i.e., how to properly accessorize public displays without inspiring a lawsuit. As part of the national campaign, the Mountain States Regional Office of the ADL recently sent guidelines to 432 mayors, city clerks and county commission chairs in Colorado and Wyoming, explaining the legal ins and outs of holiday decor. For example, an unadorned crèche is a no-no, but a Christmas tree is Supreme Court-approved. As with that tricky plaid-with-stripes rule, though, there are exceptions: a Nativity scene is never acceptable if placed on school property, but it's okay on public/government land if mixed with enough other elements to "outweigh the religious effect of the religious elements of the display," the ADL says. In short, more is always better -- and it's better yet to mix styles. Privately, of course, citizens can decorate however they please; the ADL is only concerned with public displays.

Still, offenders need not quake in their Sorels. "We are not an organization that litigates," says Evan Zuckerman, associate director of the ADL's Mountain States office. "If we saw something inappropriate, we might write a letter. We try to educate and explain the boundaries and what's permissible and what's not permissible."

While many municipalities contacted by Westword were unaware of the ADL's "Quick Guide to Religious Displays," spokespeople were quick to note that their towns' displays contain no religious iconography. Boulder certainly has experience with the pitfalls inherent in public displays, says spokewoman Jennifer Bray, since it once had to remove a tree on which people were hanging angels. Today the city settles for the little black dress of holiday displays: twinkle lights along the Pearl Street Mall.

But the Boulder Chamber of Commerce continues to light a star on Flagstaff Mountain, a tradition that started in 1947. When Public Service Company of Colorado quit guiding the light several years ago, the chamber took over. "We don't think of it as having a religious component," says chamber president and CEO Stan Zemler. "It's just a celebration of the holiday season. But periodically, people go up and trash it. We are sort of the caretaker, and in the last three years, we've spent $30,000 rebuilding it."

Although the ADL's Quick Guide doesn't specifically address stars, the group doesn't "see a star as being like a crèche," Zuckerman says. "It depends. A lot of holiday displays might make us pause and question whether they're appropriate. There are a lot of things that may be inappropriate but are not unlawful."

Hear, hear. Because with a Santa Claus and reindeer and a sled and candy canes and a Christmas tree and a Nativity scene and carolers and doves and angels and a horseshoe and floodlights blazing in the night, it's amazing Denver's baby Jesus gets any rest at all.