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VOL. 122 | NO. 246 | Thursday, December 27, 2007

Great Kwanzaa Caper Ends in Court

By Bill Dries

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The great Shelby County Building Kwanzaa controversy ended Wednesday at the Shelby County Courthouse with a ruling by Chancellor Walter Evans that County Commissioner Henri Brooks could hold a Kwanzaa program in the commission chambers.

Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas filed suit Friday seeking to stop the observance which, like the court hearing, was to be held Wednesday. Thomas argued that the observance in a government building should be stopped because Kwanzaa has enough religious aspects to it to make it a religious celebration.

By that standard his attorney, Anthony Petrangelo, tried to make the case that allowing a Kwanzaa observance in a government building violated Constitutional standards separating church and state.

“This has the feel of something that is in competition with Christmas,” he told Evans.

Evans disagreed in an oral ruling at the end of the hour and a half-hour-long hearing that included testimony from Thomas and Brooks.

“This is an action by one elected official to infringe upon the domain of another elected official,” Evans said. “It would be highly inappropriate for this court to allow one elected official to infringe upon the territory of another elected official in dictating how and under what terms and circumstances the Shelby County Commission chambers could be used.”

Turf war

Thomas told reporters after the hearing that he will not appeal Evans’ decision.

“I’m definitely disappointed. … I respect Chancellor Evans,” Thomas said. “I still feel like it’s discrimination. But this is what our court system is for and it’s happened. And the ruling will stand.”

Evans specifically ruled that Kwanzaa is not a religious observance, citing Thomas’s own testimony acknowledging that Kwanzaa is a cultural observance with religious overtones. He also used the example of prayers offered by ministers from varying denominations and faiths before meeting of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

“That does not relegate the commission’s deliberations to that of a religious celebration … just because it has a dimension involving spirituality and/or religious prayer of some sort,” Evans said.

“So, if it is not a religious celebration, then of course it would not, in this court’s opinion, violate the (constitutional) Establishment Clause dealing with the establishment of religion.”

Brooks’ attorney, Walter Bailey, a former county commissioner, questioned Thomas’s annual holiday luncheon for Probate Court judges held at the courthouse.

“We didn’t do anything but eat food. We called it a holiday luncheon because I’m sensitive to other faiths and I know the law,” Thomas told reporters later.

Positive byproduct

Brooks said the controversy had helped raise awareness of the seven-day observance of seven principles that began in the late 1960s on a California college campus. Brooks has held a public observance at the Memphis Pink Palace museum the last 12 years. She moved the observance this year after balking at a charge of $300 to use the museum.

“I’m just pleased that now we have put this issue to rest … that Kwanzaa is not a religion – that Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration. We can always remember that truth always triumphs over evil,” Brooks said. “I think it heightens the education about Kwanzaa. … It probably gives a new perspective to our dialogue about the enslavement of African people and our need for connectedness.”

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