It's 10:25 p.m. when Sandra Snowden steers her midnight blue Ford Taurus into the parking lot near a line of tollbooths on Bay Harbor Islands. She flicks off the engine, hops out, and, within seconds, is clambering over the grassy hills that divide the east- and west-bound traffic.
Never mind that it's pitch-dark. Or that the feisty fiftysomething blonde is wearing an ankle-length skirt and flimsy sandals. Or that fire ants are swarming her legs.
She's on an urgent mission to bring baby Jesus to the Broad Causeway.
Snowdenmakes her way past a cluster of royal palms and then pauses for a second. "That's where my Nativity scene is supposed to be," she says, pointing to a treeless knoll.
As if on cue, a patrol car rolls up and a burly cop pokes his head out the window. "When are your displays going up, Sandra?" he asks.
"The town's barring me again," she grumbles. "Said they'd have me arrested if I came down here. Are you going to arrest me?"
For the past two years, Snowden has been on a crusade to have her Nativity scene placed alongside the fourteen-foot menorah that each holiday season adorns this swath of public land. Though it's drawn little attention locally, her struggle has become a cause célèbre among Christian conservatives nationwide, who see it as evidence that Christmas is under siege.
The saga was supposed to draw to a close this past April, when a federal court order gave Snowden the right to display her Nativity scene and forced Bay Harbor Islands Mayor Isaac Salver not to seek re-election. But the town has since passed a resolution limiting religious displays on Broad Causeway Island, and barring ceremonies there. The reason? The town's lawyer, Frank Simone, cites safety concerns. Snowden, on the other hand, believes the measure was intended to "turn the court judgment into a farce, a mockery."
A Miami native, Snowden moved to Bay Harbor Islands in 2001. That holiday season the town, which boasts a substantial Jewish population, decorated its lampposts with eight-foot-high Stars of David. And just east of the tollbooths on Broad Causeway Island, it erected the giant menorah, which had been donated by the Shul of Bal Harbour synagogue.
Snowden didn't think much about it until her octogenarian mother, Betty Allen Evans, came to visit and wondered aloud why there wasn't also a Nativity scene. That year Evans was still relatively lucid. But by December 2002, Alzheimer's disease had ravaged her brain. "She had no idea who I was," Snowden recalls. "She had very few words. But when she came to visit, she pointed to the menorah and said, 'Where's the Nativity? Where is baby Jesus?'"
Evans died eight months later. Snowden decided to honor her memory by donating a Nativity scene for the 2003 holiday display on Broad Causeway Island. But Bay Harbor Islands officials like Bethlehem innkeepers of millennia past turned Mary and Joseph away. "We felt displaying the manger scene on government land would be a violation of the constitutional separation between church and state," Simone explains.
Simone makes the implausible argument that the menorah is actually a secular symbol and, therefore, displaying it doesn't violate the establishment clause.
Dismayed, Snowden quit eating. For a month she drank only water. And for the two months that followed, she swallowed nothing but juice. Isaac Salver, then Bay Harbor Islands' vice mayor, didn't show much sympathy. In December of that year, he wrote her a letter saying, "It is sad to see one get deeply offended by something as trivial as holiday decorations." Salver also told then-Mayor Linda Zilber that Snowden was "an anti-Semitic bitch" and urged Snowden's landlord, Harry Bruder, to evict her, according to sworn statements from Zilber and Bruder.
Salver declined to be interviewed for this story, but when the statements first surfaced, he told a SunPost reporter they were "as accurate" as their authors "are thin." In other words, Zilber and Bruder are portly prevaricators.
At a March meeting, the city council offered to make the display "more inclusive" by adding evergreens sprinkled with faux snow. "I want a Nativity scene," Snowden seethed. "If there are only Christmas trees, I'll see you in court." She made good on her promise December 2, when she filed a federal lawsuit accusing the town of trampling her constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. She was able to pursue her case thanks in part to the pro bono services of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a Christian legal organization.
Suddenly Snowden found herself in the national spotlight. Her story was featured on Fox News and The O'Reilly Factor, as well as dozens of Christian newspapers, Websites, and television networks. What's more, World News Tonight, Good Morning America, and USA Today interviewed her for stories about the nationwide battle by Christian conservatives to put Christ back in Christmas. The local media gave the skirmish comparatively scant attention. For the most part, the Miami Herald relegated it to the Miami Beach Neighbors section.
Meanwhile things got uglier in Bay Harbor. Salver, then mayor, began receiving angry letters from Snowden's supporters. "This is the season when most of the population celebrates the birth of Christ," read one missive. "Screw your beanie on and get with the program."
For her part, Snowden says she lost her job as a community relations specialist at a local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, which provides support to patients and families, after donors called threatening to withdraw their support. (The Alzheimer's Association did not return calls seeking comment.)
But Snowden continued fighting and scored her first victory December 15, 2004, when U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga issued an emergency injunction, allowing Snowden to place a Nativity scene alongside the menorah. The following night, The O'Reilly Factor ran a segment called "A Big Legal Win for the Baby Jesus in Florida." It featured lengthy interviews with Snowden and her lawyer.
Several religious right heavyweights also paid tribute. The Christian Coalition of South Florida donated the Nativity scene. Once the display was up, Snowden held a "blessing of the Nativity" ceremony, with a peace prayer delivered by Gary Cass, executive director of the influential Fort Lauderdale-based Center for Reclaiming America, which advocates for biblical principles in government. "We're supporting Sandra Snowden because her perseverance has brought a lot of attention to this issue," says Barbara Collier, who organizes grassroots activism campaigns for the center. "A lot of Christians don't know that our rights are slipping away."
Snowden's case continued to inch along until early April of this year. Then, when she was on the verge of reaching an agreement with the town, her More Center lawyers pulled out, citing "irreconcilable differences." The center did not return calls seeking comment, but Snowden says the organization didn't want to be party to ousting Salver.
So Snowden hired local attorney Kevin Brown, and less than two weeks later, on April 18, the parties agreed (and the court clinched the agreement with an order) that Mayor Salver would apologize and not seek election as mayor or vice mayor for two years though he remains on the council. Snowden has since launched the Website Stop Salver (www.stopsalver.com) and a petition drive to have him recalled from his city council post. And she has barraged the Miami-Dade League of Cities, where he serves as president, with letters urging his ouster.
The court opened Broad Causeway Island not only to Snowden but also to all Bay Harbor Islands residents wanting to erect a holiday display. It also gave the town council the right to set some restrictions. So on October 10 it passed a resolution limiting each resident to one display of no more than twelve-by-fifteen feet and barring anyone from entering Broad Causeway Island to "gather or perform services."
"The island is a dangerous place for people to be because of the traffic," explains Simone, the town's lawyer. "We felt these rules would keep people safe."
Snowden chafed at the resolution, particularly the ceremony ban, since the Shul had been performing menorah-lighting rites on Broad Causeway Island for years. So she decided to ignore it. On October 17 she submitted plans to install three displays the Nativity scene, a giant holiday greeting card, and an arc of military flags with a sign reading "Reclaim America for Christ This Christmas." She also outlined plans to perform ceremonies. That didn't sit well with town officials. "She was being greedy," Simone grumbles. "We gave an inch and she took a yard."
When the town denied her application, Snowden responded that she planned to bring her displays to town hall the Monday after Thanksgiving anyway, and to have a priest, reporters, and Christian Coalition members in tow. The town filed an emergency motion to stop her, and she filed a countermotion, so the case landed back in court.
On November 29, Judge Altonaga let all provisions of the resolution stand but said the ceremony ban might be enforceable only if the town passed an ordinance. Snowden responded that she would hold a protest, complete with a "living Nativity," on the streets of Bay Harbor Islands December 15. "I have to keep fighting," she explains. "If they can limit my Christian freedom of expression here in Miami-Dade County, they can do it in every public square across America."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.