An order to remove angels and stars from Christmas trees in all government buildings in one California county has been rescinded following the uproar that ensued over the decision.
Acting County Administrator Chris Thomas in Sonoma County informed the heads of all 26 county departments to disregard his previous order, which was made in response to the complaint of a disabled atheist veteran.
"At this time, I wish to make clear that there is no prohibition on any particular decoration and as such my previous e-mail request should be considered rescinded," Thomas wrote, according to the Press Democrat. "You are encouraged to use your best judgment with respect to appropriate decorations for our public spaces."
Last week, 65-year-old Irv Sutley, who claims to have been an atheist all his life and regularly files complaints about religious symbols in public places, complained to Sonoma County officials after seeing an angel on top of a six-foot Christmas tree in the lobby of the county recorder's office and later a star ornament in the office of the county Board of Supervisors.
To Sutley, the star on top of three represents the star of Bethlehem – "a cult symbol, the cult being Christianity."
"It is a civil rights issue," Sutley told the New York times. "It is very offensive to agnostics, atheists and those who believe in separation of church and state to be subjected to this by their government."
Following the complaint, county officials consulted with their lawyers and afterward decided to order the removal of the ornaments to avoid controversy and to satisfy the concerns of the county's residents.
In his e-mail rescinding the order, Thomas, the county's top official, said his decision was based on concerns that the county would be seen as endorsing a particular religion by allowing the items.
After speaking with county supervisor Shirlee Zane Wednesday morning, however, Thomas changed his mind, acknowledging that "[c]learly there are differences of opinion about whether religious symbols in our decorations in public areas constitutes such an endorsement."
"[A]nd members of the Board have expressed an interest discussing this issue at a future meeting of the Board," he added.
With that, Thomas apologized for the disruption and encouraged department heads to use their best judgment for the time being.
Sutley, meanwhile, said he plans to meet with lawyers next month to consider legal action to prevent future use of the decorations.
He also plans ask Sonoma officials to remove a steel cross erected as a memorial to an accident victim, according to FoxNews.com.
In addition to being a marine veteran, Sutley is reportedly a leader in the Peace and Freedom Party and a longtime advocate for government neutrality on religion.
Sonoma County, located on the northern coast of California, is one of the northernmost counties of the nine-county Greater San Francisco Bay Area.