Vol. 31, No. 12
Bah Humbug! Colorado Law and the Winter Holiday Season
by Tom I. Romero, II
This historical perspective was written by Tom I. Romero II, Western Legal Studies Fellow, University of Colorado-Boulder: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The winter holiday season in Colorado is often a time of giving. In the case of some Colorado citizens, however, it has been a time fraught with peril. Colorado’s legal history provides a glimpse of the challenges that have confronted the state’s jurists and litigants during the holidays.
On January 1, 1904, members of an African American dance club found themselves locked out of Arion Hall in the Enterprise Building located in downtown Denver. Only a week earlier, on Christmas night, the club held a dance in the very same hall, although building managers vigorously opposed their use of the facility. Holding a valid contract to occupy the hall on both nights, members of the club nevertheless were barred on New Year’s night because the Enterprise Building’s owners and management objected to having the hall utilized by African American citizens. The Colorado Supreme Court did not take kindly to such a view. According to the Court, "[t]he mere fact that [the building’s agent] rented it to those of that race, or that they were objectionable to the lessor, affords no legal justification or excuse for locking the hall and excluding [African Americans] who were reputable and orderly and conducted themselves in a proper manner." [Central Business College Co. v. Rutherford, 107 P. 279, 280 (Colo. 1910).]
Similar to the holiday behavior demonstrated by the Enterprise Building’s management, the actions of some Longmont skaters left much to be desired. A couple of days before Christmas in 1938, Gladys Williams encountered a large crowd "full of fun and revelry, and composed principally of children, adolescents and the younger social set" at Longmont’s Sunset Lake. As she skated that night, a sizable group of revelers were playing "crack-the-whip." When the tail of the whip was suddenly "cracked," a detachment of skaters—"having been rent and torn loose from the whip"—slid out of control toward Williams. Within seconds, Williams lay unconscious on the ice. In rejecting Williams’s claim against the City of Longmont, the Colorado Supreme Court recognized the near impossibility of a municipality in supervising young holiday revelers. Indeed, the Court suggested that the public policies associated with the holiday season required a relaxation of normal standards of conduct. [Williams v. City of Longmont, 129 P.2d 110 (Colo. 1942).]
Like Gladys Williams, Denver violinist Leonard Austria learned that the holiday season could be physically dangerous. On February 1, 1954, Austria tripped over a wire mesh fence that city workers had erected around elaborate Christmas decorations on the front steps of the municipal building. The post-holiday mishap left Austria with a few broken teeth, several sizable cuts, and a lawsuit against the City and County of Denver. In attempting to avoid liability for Austria’s injuries, the City and County of Denver argued that Colorado law (CRS 1953, 36-4) compelled the city to assemble its garish holiday display. The Colorado Supreme Court, however, rejected this line of reasoning, arguing instead "that it is not within the bounds of judicial reasoning to say that placing Christmas decorations on the municipal building or courthouse, and the removal thereof, is a governmental function. The municipal government . . . can operate at full efficiency in every respect without such decorations." [City and County of Denver v. Austria, 318 P.2d 1101 (Colo. 1957).]
The whole situation may have been avoided if the city had followed the advice of Mayor Quigg Newton not long after he was elected in 1947. At the time, Mayor Newton proposed toning down the gaudy Christmas display at the City and County Building. Rather than getting support for his proposal, Newton instead incited what one historian called a "public uproar, second in recent times only to the revolt provoked when the legislature tried to remove the mountains from Colorado license plates. Despite groans from a few aesthetes and atheists, Newton bowed to the majority and reinstalled a full array of Christmas figures, ranging from the Baby Jesus to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." [Leonard and Noel, Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1990) at 246.] In a complete rejection of the pronouncements of the Colorado Supreme Court, Denverites made it patently clear that the holiday display at the City and County Building was not only essential to good government, but central to their civic identity.
Ultimately, Coloradans have negotiated a precarious balance in the legal issues that arise during the winter holiday season. Through jurisprudence on such issues, Colorado courts have historically recognized the spirit of community in the holiday season and, correspondingly, have attempted to find good will in the men, women, children, companies, and municipalities that make up the state’s many winter holiday celebrations.
The early twentieth-century efforts of Colorado’s African American community to enjoy equal access to the state’s public facilities during the winter holiday season are documented in the pages of the Colorado Statesman and the Denver Star located in the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library. The lavish light display at the City and County Building of Denver is recounted in Stephen Leonard and Thomas Noel, Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis (Niwot, CO: Univ. Press of Colo., 1990). Based partially on Professor Noel’s testimony concerning the municipal building’s holiday display history, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in Conrad v. City and County of Denver, 724 P.2d 1309 (Colo. 1986), that the city’s nativity display did not violate the Preference Clause of the Colorado State Constitution (Const. Art. 2 § 4).
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