Irv Sutley was ten years old when he first took on God.
It was 1955, and Sutley was in the fifth grade at Park Elementary School, Mill Valley.
The year before, 'under God' had been inserted into the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” stamped onto America's coins and currency.
“When the Christers got 'under God' stuck in the pledge and on the money,” Sutley recalls, “I was just a kid, but it somehow rubbed me the wrong way."
“When they made us get up to say the Pledge, I'd just stand there without speaking. That same year I refused to be in a play about the birth of Jesus, but the school put me in charge of curtains. I knotted the ropes so they couldn't pull them open, but all I managed was to delay things.”
55 years later, Sutley still sounds disappointed he couldn't monkeywrench that Jesus play.
The atheist is a thick-bodied, gravely-voiced man long identified with the Bay Area's political left. Sutley has fought many battles over five decades, among them armed defense of black churches in the 1960s. But it was the battle he launched in Santa Rosa four days before Christmas 2009 that has made the intrepid ex-Marine the object of national wrath.
“One guy said he wanted to club me to death like one of those baby Alaskan seals,” Sutley laughs, “but I'm taking these nuts seriously. I can't afford the $600 you need to get a concealed weapons permit but,” he vows, “I'm not without the means to protect myself.”
Four days before Christmas, Sutley, chairman of Sonoma County's Peace and Freedom Party, had dropped by the Sonoma County Recorder's Office to check the voter lists. He wasn't looking for Christian symbols on public property, and certainly didn't expect to find himself in Yuletide combat with the dread Christers over issues of church and state.
“I go to the Registrar's all the time to see who's signed up to vote with us, who isn't. I saw they had a Christmas tree up in the office with an angel and stars on it. They can't do that.”
Angels and stars are described by Sutley as “religious totems and trinkets.” Angels and stars on a Christmas tree in an office of government, Sutley immediately insisted, are constitutionally prohibited.
The fight was on.
Sutley soon found himself in one-on-one conference with Sonoma County's acting administrator, an accommodating fellow named Chris Thomas. Thomas quickly agreed with Sutley that the angels on the tree were, as Sutley had informed him, a violation of the constitutional guarantee that church and state were to be forever separate as decreed by the Founding Fathers. Americans are supposed to know, Sutley often points out, that the Founding Fathers hoped to avoid the religious slaughters and persecutions characteristic of the Old World out of their brand new America.
Thomas agreed with Sutley on the angels. The winged cherubs could go, and off the tree they came. But Thomas wasn't so sure about the star at the top of the tree. “I'll have to get back to you on the stars,” he told Sutley.
Sutley, like so many atheists, knows his Christian theology better than many Christians.
“I told Thomas that the stars represented the Star of Bethlehem, which is obviously a Christian symbol.”
But the apparently less Biblically-versed Thomas said he wanted to get legal direction before he took the stars off the tree.
“I said while he was doing that I was going to have a look at the other county offices,” Sutley says.
Sutley's inspection turned up angels and stars almost everywhere in Sonoma County's administrative complex.
“In every office except the cops and welfare they had Christmas trees with stars and angels and other Christian stuff on them,” Sutley says he reported to Mr. Thomas. “I told him it was all illegal according to both the national and state constitutions.”
Sonoma County's attorneys confirmed Sutley's objections, and Thomas ordered that office trees be stripped of their cherubs and stars.
“I'm not against people's religions,” Sutley says. “They can do what they want in their churches, their cemeteries, their own houses, but the Supreme Court, as late as 1989, says Christmas trees on public property are fine so long as they aren't decorated with overtly religious symbols. Can it be any clearer?”
That Monday afternoon, administrator Thomas directed all 26 of Sonoma County's departments to remove angels and stars, and Sutley retreated to his Christmas-free home satisfied he'd done his job as an American patriot. He'd seen multiple constitutional violations in his local government offices and had put them right that same day. That was the end of it, he thought, as he added another victory to his long list of triumphs over the Christers.
And it is a long list of triumphs.
“In 1992 I was running for Assembly when my friend Ernie Jones asked me to go to a Santa Rosa City Council meeting because they were going to plant brambles on a patch of lawn at the train station to keep the homeless from sleeping there. Ernie and I were sitting there when a preacher got up and began to pray to open the meeting.”
No sooner had the unsuspecting cleric uttered “Our Father” when Irv rose to object.
“People were yelling at me to sit down and shut up, but I kept saying that invocations and prayers at public meetings were illegal.”
Three Santa Rosa cops soon had Sutley surrounded, among them Ruben Sanchez, police chaplain, an armed and badged Christer who seemed especially irritated with Sutley.
“I was arrested and, to tell you the truth, kind of tortured. I have a note from my doctor that I carry with me that says if I'm arrested I have to be cuffed in the front because my arms and shoulders are wrecked. (Sutley's arms and shoulders are partially immobilized from his years as a warehouseman.) I asked the cops to read the note. Fuck you, Sanchez told me, cuffing me in the back and jerking the cuffs up behind my back. They took me to jail, but I won that one and they haven't prayed since.”
“In '93 I wrote to the Petaluma City Council that I planned to sue them if they persisted in opening their meetings with prayers. Petaluma, by the way, at the time, made a big show of their opening prayers when they were on television for their night meetings, but didn't bother praying at their day meetings when there were no television cameras around. And I knew that Petaluma was the town before the war where the German-American Bund used to march down Western Avenue singing the Nazi's Horst Wessel marching song and German kids painted swastikas on Jewish kids. So, yeah, you could say I took a special interest in Petaluma.”
Sutley didn't have the money to sue Petaluma, but he “went to meetings for a year to get them to stop praying.”
Petaluma tried to substitute a moment of silence for their opening prayer, hoping that concession would get Sutley off their backs.
No prayers, no moments of silence, and darned if he'd stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or any other God-soaked loyalty oath that the Petaluma City Council insisted upon with that 'under God' nonsense planted in the middle of it.
Vince Landof, who'd run for mayor of Petaluma, and also a retired warehouseman, was particularly incensed at Sutley's persistence. One night, after a year of shooting Sutley the evil eye and muttering threats at the chipper non-believer, Landof accosted Sutley outside council chambers and fixed a righteous stare on the protester.
“Who appointed you hall monitor?” Sutley teased Landof, at which impertinence Landof smashed his cane over Irv's skull and crab scuttled rapidly out of the building as the police were called.
Years later Sutley is still amused.
“Landof was arrested and his vehicle was impounded. He paid for that one, but these people do get riled up.”
Sutley enjoyed a comparable, less violent, victory over Rohnert Park where he not only eliminated the prayer preceding council meetings, he compelled Rohnert Park to re-design its city seal to exclude its Star of David and other religious pictographs.
The Christers were very, very unhappy, as were the liberals who thought Sutley's campaigns were “divisive” and that religious symbols on city seals were ecumenically, harmlessly “inclusive.”
As the first decade of the 21st century entered its final year last week, Irv Sutley had almost completely banished God from the public life of official Sonoma County.
And, as of Monday the 21st of December, 2009, Sutley was so confident that Sonoma County's celebratory Christmas trees would be shorn of their Christian symbolism that he wrote a kind of mop-up letter to that county's repentant bureaucrat, Chris Thomas, reminding Thomas that the “metal 'Christian' cross on display at the edge of the Ernie Smith county park…is another constitutional violation…that the county must remove within 10 business days of the date of this email.”
Administrator Thomas wrote back to Sutley: “Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. This morning I have requested that all religious symbols on Christmas trees in our lobbies be removed. I am researching the cross you mention and will address that separately…”
Sutley had won.
But by the next day Sutley had lost.
Sonoma County, besieged by outraged Christians, reversed itself. The K-Mart cherubs and the stars could be put back on the trees.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents the Santa Rosa area of Sonoma County, had ordered Thomas to reverse himself.
Ms. Zane, citing an intellectual from Santa Rosa's Empire College of Law, declared that Sutley had his law wrong, that the decision to remove the stars and angels had been “arbitrary” and that their removal “rejected decades of official conduct and community sentiment.”
Which, given Sutley's many years of victories over public religious displays in Sonoma County, was a demonstrably false characterization of local history.
Zane's acting administrator, the beleaguered Thomas, was undoubtedly now terrified that he might soon be hanging from a Christmas tree himself.
So Thomas reversed course.
“There is no prohibition on any particular decoration,” Thomas wrote to Sonoma County's department heads, as he apologized “for any inconvenience and disruption.”
Sutley was even more besieged, and then exponentially besieged when he went on nationally syndicated Fox Radio where, among other provocations, he enjoyed pointing out that if “state and local governments could delay implementation of Supreme Court decisions like the 1989 decision prohibiting Christian symbols on public property, African Americans, for instance, still wouldn't be voting.” Sutley further insisted: “I'm not wrong. I've got the U.S. constitution and the California state constitution behind me.” The long-time provocateur took full advantage of his opportunity to address the Fox News types with comments indicating how pleased he was that an African-American was presently living in the White House.
Asked by his Fox News interrogator, “What are you doing for Christmas?” Sutley replied, “I never do anything for Christmas, but on December 25th I went to a party at Big Man Howard's house, a founder of the Black Panther Party.”
Of Sonoma County supervisor Zane, who had cited the White House Christmas tree as equivalent to the trees displayed in Sonoma County's public offices, Sutley says, “This insane supervisor thinks her county admin building is the equivalent of the White House. She's delusional. The White House is a private residence, not a public place other than it's owned in theory by the public. It's not the same thing at all.”
A week later, the media blitz continues with stories in The New York Times, and network television shows abuzz with harrumphing indignation that a California atheist won't even let people enjoy Christmas.
And the national attention has made Sutley the object of literally thousands of insults and death threats from the followers of the Prince of Peace.
“It's like Ebenezer Scrooge raped the Grinch,” one critic wrote, “and Irv Sutley is the aborted fetus that resulted.”
Another hoped, “May he have 32 reindeer hoofprints in his skull come Christmas morning.”
“I hope you are hit in a crosswalk by a stoned liberal in a Prius. Hurry and die. No one will miss you.”
“I will add to my nightly prayer that Irv Sutley will burn in HELL”
The wittiest denunciation simply said, “Flock you, Irv.”
Sutley, a gun guy, and a staunch proponent of armed self defense, says of the deluge of threats and insults, “Most of this stuff is coming from the Methodists; we all know that Baptists can't read.”
Predictably, Sutley's hometown newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, an affiliate of The New York Times, concluded a pandering editorial assessment of the controversy with, "...the ornaments should remain on the trees.”
Meanwhile, the indomitable Sutley looks forward to taking on Sonoma County's police chaplaincy program and getting that pesky cross removed from Ernie Smith County Park.
“The reversal by Sonoma County may be a blessing in disguise,” he laughs.