Orange County Courthouse tree survives a challenge


Every year around Thanksgiving, Sheriff’s Special Officer Cynthia Guerrero heads to the basement of Orange County Superior Court’s Central Justice Center, unpacks a worn-out, faded artificial Christmas tree, dusts it off and sets it up in the main lobby. She hangs lights and multicolored angel-shaped tags from its branches, soliciting gifts for needy children and adults.

The tree, which court workers have taken to calling the Charlie Brown tree, is a well-worn tradition at the courthouse, Guerrero said.

This year, it also put the county’s main courthouse right in the center of a well-worn controversy that has tested the law for years.

Shortly after the Charlie Brown tree went up, someone complained about the presence of a Christmas symbol in a public courthouse. Guerrero was asked to take it down.

For decades, courts and public officials have been divided over the presence of such displays on public property.

Three years ago, a display of nine Christmas trees was yanked from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after a rabbi threatened to file a lawsuit unless the holiday display included a menorah. A bevy of counter-complaints followed and the trees went back up soon after.

In 2002, officials in Mission Viejo decided to hold a lottery to determine which religions would be represented in holiday decorations after concerns that its usual arrangement featuring two religious displays, a Santa’s workshop and community Christmas tree would lead to legal troubles.

Two years earlier, parents at a school in Newport Beach hung strings of colored Christmas lights around the school but were forced to take them down after a warning from the school board president.

This year, the courthouse tree removal led to dozens of complaints and a petition by courthouse workers.

The tree was taken down while court employees did research to make sure its presence could be supported by case law, said court spokeswoman Carole Levitzky. It went back up one day later.

The controversy has helped gift collection go up slightly to about 400 this year despite the bad economy, said Sheriff Department Sgt. Manny Pacheco, who is in charge of weapons screening and building security at the courthouse.

The department heads the courthouse gift collection program, which is part of a countywide program called Operation Santa Claus.

“I think it’s worked out for the best,” Pacheco said. “People have been coming to the counters and asking, ‘Is this the tree I read about?’ I believe there’s only about five [donation] tags left.”