NEWS

Firehouse’s ‘Happy Birthday Jesus’ sign sparks debate

Rocco LaDuca

When firefighters at the Shepherd Place firehouse display a homemade sign every Christmas that states “Happy Birthday Jesus – We love you,” people notice.

For some people, the sign serves as an inspiring reminder of the meaning of Christmas.

For others, the placard has sparked questions of whether such a display is appropriate for a public facility.

Utica Fire Chief Russell Brooks said the two or three negative letters he has received this year pale in comparison to the outpouring of cards, baked goods and friendly words the sign has prompted.

But one person recently contacted a local chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which then brought the issue to the attention of City Hall, officials said.

According to several U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s, as well as President Richard Thompson of the Thomas More Law Center, the Utica Fire Department is well within its right.

If such a sign was displayed by itself, that may be a problem, U.S. Supreme Court justices have ruled. But the addition of other holiday symbols, such as Santa Claus, a Christmas tree or a menorah, makes the sign part of a larger – and less religious – holiday theme, the rulings state.

“There is a national holiday that recognizes Jesus’ birth, no matter what your belief is,” Brooks said.

In addition to the sign, the firehouse also displays wooden images of Santa and Mrs. Claus, a toy soldier, a holiday wreath and a Christmas tree with lights.

Still, the mere presence on public property of a sign naming Jesus does raise some civil liberty concerns, regardless of the presence of other decorations, said Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the state’s civil liberties union.

“The presence of this sign alone would give the appearance of an official government endorsement of a religious belief,” which is unconstitutional, Gewanter said. “We should stick to more secularized and general expressions of this holiday’s celebrations, and what it means to different members of the community.”

Firehouse Capt. Richard Tomaino said he doesn’t see what the fuss is about over the sign, which was painted by firefighter Michael Welch.

“We were under the impression there would be nothing religious about saying ‘Happy Birthday,’ whatever the name may be,” Tomaino said.

Sue Arcuri of Utica has been outspoken in her support of the firefighters’ freedom to express their opinion on the building that some may consider their second “home.”

“I believe the sign signifies what this Christmas season is all about,” Arcuri said. “We’ve gotten so politically correct in this country that we don’t recognize the holiday for what it is. Let them protest, but it’s a beautiful sign.”

The Brother Courtney Muhammad, a local representative of the Nation of Islam and student minister at Muhammad Study Group of Utica, also said he isn’t bothered by the sign’s religious reference.

Muhammad’s problem, however, is with Santa Claus, he said.

“I would rather see Jesus’ name raised up on Dec. 25 than Santa Claus,” Muhammad said. “My problem is the gross commercialization of Christmas. Instead of honoring Jesus, we give honor to Santa Claus. But we’re talking about God; we’re not talking about Santa Claus.”

Observer-Dispatch