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Christmas Spirit Surfaces Anew in West Hollywood

November 16, 1986|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

Christmas may be on the verge of a comeback in West Hollywood, the town that does not officially celebrate the holiday.

Mayor Stephen Schulte said last week that he plans to ask fellow council members to reverse last year's controversial vote that canceled Christmas as a city holiday and kept City Hall open for the day.

"The majority of people in this community think that the council made a mistake," Schulte said. "I agree with them. We're out of sync with the rest of the country and there's no reason for it."

But Councilman Alan Viterbi, who proposed the ordinance that eliminated Christmas as a city holiday, will fight to keep the law when the council takes up the matter in its Monday meeting.

Church-State Separation

Viterbi said the law maintains the city's barriers between church and state. "I continue to believe that my position is correct," Viterbi said. "Ours is a pluralistic society and it would be wrong to single out any religious group for preferential treatment."

Despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have treated Christmas as a national holiday, Viterbi said he proposed the ordinance because "Christmas is a religious holiday. Other cities may consider it a secular holiday, but it just isn't."

Viterbi introduced the ordinance after City Atty. Michael Jenkins found legal flaws in an earlier council decision that made the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur a city holiday. Told that the city could not close its offices on Yom Kippur, Viterbi asked the council to allow the city government to operate during all religious holidays--including Christmas.

In agreeing with Viterbi's proposal, the council allowed city employees to stay away from work on Christmas but only if they considered it as one of 4 1/2 floating holidays allowed each year.

A skeleton staff kept City Hall open. Several departments handled routine business and county sheriff's deputies ticketed about 200 illegally parked cars, which drew so much ire from residents and visitors that the city nullified the tickets a day later.

Schulte and several other city leaders insist that controversy surrounding the decision to cancel Christmas has damaged the city's image. "It did not serve us well," said Tony Melia, president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "It made us conspicuous. We looked out of step with the rest of the nation."

But despite their private dismay about Viterbi's ordinance, community leaders have made no effort to reverse the decision.

Instead, a born-again Christian legal secretary has been the lone voice in favor of bringing back Christmas as a city-sanctioned holiday. "To me, it's an issue of religious freedom," said Cathy Wagner, a West Hollywood resident. "They are taking religion more and more out of the public view and I don't like it. This holiday has been celebrated ever since America was born."

Legitimizing Fundamentalism

Viterbi suggested that if the council reversed itself, it would lend legitimacy to the views of Wagner and other religious fundamentalists. "By reversing ourselves, we would be giving in to the religious fundamentalism that is on the rise in this country," he said. "I don't think that West Hollywood should try to be like the rest of the country. We should be proud of our differences."

Schulte replied that his attempt to repeal the ordinance does not validate the views of Wagner and other fundamentalists. "My decision was based on conversations with many city residents," he said. "If she wants to take any credit in this, I think she may be overestimating herself."

Schulte said he hopes to be backed by Councilwoman Helen Albert. Viterbi said he expects support from Councilman John Heilman. Although Heilman declined to say how he might vote, he indicated that he thought Viterbi's ordinance "was well-reasoned. There were legitimate religious freedom issues that led the council to act as it did. We did not act on a whim."

Because the council's fifth member, newly elected Abbe Land, will not take office until December, there is a possibility of a tie vote and the ordinance would remain in effect.

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