Alex Doniach, Commercial Appeal (Memphis), Dec. 27, 2007
The Kwanzaa celebration that spurred a lawsuit took place in the Shelby County Commission chambers Wednesday night as planned.
A Chancery Court judge dismissed a case Wednesday morning to block the Kwanzaa celebration from being held in the county’s main administration building at 160 N. Main, ruling that it was not a religious event.
The complaint was filed last Friday by Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas against Shelby County Government and County Commissioner Henri Brooks, who hosted the celebration.
Thomas said he was not opposed to Kwanzaa, but opposed this celebration on the grounds that other faiths were denied the right to host their own religious events. Religious symbols, such as the Nativity scene, are not allowed on county property.
Chancery Court Judge Walter L. 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 . . . the Shelby County Commission chambers would be used.”
Kwanzaa is a seven-day cultural event honoring black and African heritage. Evans said that based on the evidence presented, “it has not been shown to be a religious celebration.”
The Chancery court room was standing room only Wednesday morning, filled with members of the media, curious spectators and a handful of Kwanzaa supporters dressed in colorful African garb.
Representing Thomas, attorney Anthony Pietrangelo argued that allowing the celebration would be discriminatory, and in violation of the First Amendment, because the county attorney had denied Thomas the right to host a Christian party yet allowed the Kwanzaa event to take place.
He directed the court to a Kwanzaa Web site that described the celebration as a spiritual alternative to Christmas, which also incorporates words like “creator” and “faith.”
By allowing this event, Shelby County would send the message of “no to access for Christmas, but yes to access for Kwanzaa,” Pietrangelo said.
Attorneys Walter Bailey, representing Brooks, and Leo Bearman Jr., representing Shelby County Government, emphatically denied that Kwanzaa was a religious event.
Bailey said Brooks’ intention was “purely secular and certainly not religious.”
Added Bearman: “I’m advised that many people celebrate their own religion and Kwanzaa.”
Brooks, who took the stand in a fire-engine-red suit and gold hoop earrings, said she is a Christian in addition to celebrating Kwanzaa. She’s a member of the Greater Imani Church.
Bailey also noted that for the judge to block the Kwanzaa event, Thomas would have to show how this celebration causes injury.
Thomas, in a demure black suit, told the court that physically he would not be injured, but being prevented from celebrating Christmas while others celebrate Kwanzaa “does offend me and it injures me . . .
“As a taxpayer, I’m injured because (county government is) using taxpayers’ money to fund this event after hours.”
Because this case dealt specifically with Kwanzaa, she does not believe it sets a precedent about who and for what reasons the commission’s chambers could be used.
She’s pleased that the issue has been put to rest.
“We can always remember that truth always triumphs over evil,” she said.