NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. – Pasco County (search) officials have banned Christmas trees from public buildings after their county attorney decided they were religious symbols.
Dozens of people have complained to the county north of Tampa, and a constitutional law group this week urged it to reverse its decision.
"This whole thing is silly. It floors me," said Marijane Graham, 67, of Dade City. "I'm sure there are atheists celebrating Christmas somewhere just for the spirit of giving. I've never read about a Christmas tree in the Bible, or Santa for that matter."
The last of the Christmas trees was removed Wednesday, said Dan Johnson, assistant county administrator for Public Services. Trees in "semiprivate" areas, such as personal offices, were allowed to remain.
Previously, the county barred religious symbols from its buildings but allowed Christmas trees. The county attorney reconsidered that stance, and decided the trees also were religious symbols, after a man sought to display a menorah in a public building, Johnson said.
"What you allow for one (religious symbol) you must provide for all," Johnson said.
The American Center for Law & Justice (search), a law firm founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, asked the county to reverse the decision, saying it was based on a flawed understanding of the law. The center said Christmas trees are legally considered a secular symbol of the national holiday.
The center's chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, said in a press release that "this is the most extreme example of censorship imaginable."
Johnson said the decision would stand through the holidays, but it would be reviewed next year.
The holiday season has brought with it a scattering of conflicts across the country in which some Christian groups have accused governments and businesses of trying to remove religious messages from their celebrations and greetings.
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered the Plano, Texas, school district to allow students to distribute gifts that include religious messages — such as Christian-themed candy canes — at school parties scheduled for Friday.
Parents had sued this week over a policy they said banned their children's religious expression from classrooms. School officials said that on Dec. 1 they had changed the policy to allow distribution of all materials — religious or otherwise — at Friday's parties.
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the town of Bay Harbor Islands (search), Fla., must allow a resident to display Christian decorations alongside a public Jewish holiday display.