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CROSSES STIR DISPUTE AT COURTHOUSE ORLEANS OFFICIAL SEES CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUE

Orleans County Historian C.W. Lattin wants eight lighted Christmas crosses removed from the dome of the Orleans County Courthouse in Albion because he says they violate church-state separation.

But Stanley J. Dudek, the county's chief administrative officer, said the county took them down last summer to make way for some roof work and put them back up earlier this month only when residents complained about their absence from the Christmas lighting on the Courthouse.

Lattin, a part-time county employee, said he has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Religious Liberty about the situation.

Edd Doerr, executive director of the Americans for Religious Liberty, based in Silver Spring, Md., said he is sending the Orleans Legislature a letter "on behalf of our members in Orleans County," urging the crosses' removal.

He said the letter reminds the lawmakers that placing religious symbols on public property violates the First Amendment and sends a message to non-Christians that they are second-class citizens.

"We will point out that if push comes to shove and there is litigation, the county will probably lose and will incur legal expenses," he said.

Last week, Lattin petitioned the Legislature to take down the crosses, but Legislature Chairman Lyndon Billings said the lawmakers won't be able to meet to discuss the complaint until after the holidays.

The eight crosses, made of two-by-fours and decorated with white lights, stand in front of windows in the base that supports the dome of the 132-year-old courthouse.

Burnell Bingaman, county buildings and grounds superintendent, said the crosses have been part of the Christmas lighting for the 18 years he has held the job. In recent years, he said, the lights have been put up only during the Christmas season, but the crosses have been left up all year. Last summer, however, the crosses were taken down because of a roof replacement project.

Lattin said he advised Dudek about six weeks ago that the crosses should be left out of the Christmas lighting "to observe separation of church and state and to preserve the architectural integrity of the building." Lattin said he was delighted when the dome was decorated about two weeks ago without the crosses. But he was "really irked" when they reappeared over the weekend.

Dudek said the crosses were not replaced when the lighting went up earlier this month because "they needed some repair, and we were short on manpower."

"When they didn't go up, there were some complaints," he said. "So they were repaired and put back up."

Although Lattin's petition, signed by 51 county residents, was filed Dec. 12 with the County Legislature, Dudek said it was not considered then because the lawmakers were busy adopting a budget. "I assume we will discuss it, but by the time we get around to it, it will be after the holidays," said Billings, the Legislature chairman.

Lattin contended that putting the crosses rather than a more recognizable Christmas symbol on the Courthouse is "as ridiculous as putting up shamrocks or eight jack-o'-lanterns at this time of year."

He also said he is motivated by legal rather than religious reasons.

"I am not anti-Christian or anti-Christmas," he said.

"I was hearing complaints from people in the community who are recognized as being very devout Christians from several churches. The Orleans County Courthouse is owned by all the people of Orleans County, but the cross is not an all-inclusive American symbol" that represents every taxpayer."

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