The four-year battle of the Creche Lady vs. Fairfax County is over.
County officials cried "uncle" this week and said they will not contest a federal appeals court's ruling that Rita Warren has a constitutional right to put religious displays outside the county government center.
In celebration, Warren, 71, went out and bought statues of the three kings and a shepherd to add to her waist-high Nativity scene. The whole display will go up at the government center Dec. 20, after visits to the governor's office in Richmond and Fairfax City Hall.
"I'm going Monday to speak to the [county] Board of Supervisors to tell them there's no hard feelings," said Warren, "that the victory is not mine, it's for God and the people who can go to the government center and see the First Amendment work."
J. Patrick Taves, a county lawyer, said he could not comment on Fairfax's decision, referring callers to board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D). Hanley did not return repeated telephone calls.
Warren doesn't look like a formidable opponent. A tiny, white-haired lady who depends on the kindness of friends and strangers to pay for her legal fees, her station wagon and even the figures in her displays, she has no ill words for supervisors and others who have opposed her displays.
Federal officials know Warren well. In June 1979, she drove a hearse up to the U.S. Capitol and held a funeral for Uncle Sam. She's been back off and on ever since--with Crucifixion scenes at Easter, creches at Christmas and religious displays all summer.
An Italian war bride who never shed her accent, Warren attributes her interest in religious freedom to the repression she encountered under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and her faith to the survival of her older daughter, who was born disabled and has endured numerous surgeries.
Over coffee in her cozy first-floor apartment, Warren related how God and Jesus tell her what to do and what targets to take on. She began bringing a life-size figure of Jesus to the Capitol because a voice told her, "Put me on the Capitol steps," she said. In 1991, she organized a reenactment of the Crucifixion in Moscow after the same voice told her to go to the Soviet Union.
Fairfax County drew Warren's attention in 1995, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments must allow religious displays anywhere other displays are permitted. The county allowed Warren's creche that year but then rewrote its rules to prohibit nonresidents from erecting displays. Warren lives outside the county, in Fairfax City.
When several conservative lawyers rejected her case, Warren got help from an unexpected source, the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had traditionally argued against religious displays, but the group believed the new Fairfax rules infringed on free-speech rights.
The ACLU hooked Warren up with Alexandria lawyer Victor Glasberg. Warren says that knowing Glasberg, who is Jewish, has given her new perspective. "I used to think the Jews didn't like the Christian people," she said. Now she includes a menorah in several of her displays and is buying a Hanukah card for Glasberg's mother.
Next on Warren's agenda: a mandatory moment of silence in Virginia public schools. State law allows such moments, but Warren wants to require them. State Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) has agreed to submit the bill for consideration--provided the legislature's lawyers think it constitutionally permissible. "She's a constituent and an activist and deserves to be heard," Barry said.
Warren is sure it will pass. "If you love the people who don't agree with you enough, [the love] will come back to you," she said. "Miracles happen every day."
CAPTION: Rita Warren shows off the creche she will erect this year. A Hanukah menorah lights the scene.
CAPTION: Rita Warren said her victory over Fairfax County is "for God and the people who can go to the government center and see the First Amendment work."