A Miami-Dade County commissioner praised “the birth of our King, Jesus” in a Christmas message mailed to constituents on county letterhead, offending some constituents and a civil-rights group for injecting a religious endorsement into official county correspondence.
Commissioner Javier Souto’s office mailed the message to residents in District 10, which he has represented since 1993.
“We are approaching the happiest and most significant days in our calendar: Christmas and the Holidays,” he wrote. “The Brotherhood of Men is never felt stronger than during these last days of the year when we commemorate the birth of our King, Jesus, the Son of God. It is now when we see with enormous clarity what is truly important and what is not.”
Souto, a Republican holding a nonpartisan seat on the 13-member commission, did not respond to an interview request, and the County Commission’s press office also did not respond to a request for comment on Souto’s behalf.
The letter was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union for violating the separation required between church and state, even in messages tied to the celebration of a Christian holiday. The group called Souto’s letter to constituents “inappropriate” for official communication from a county official.
“Christmas is one of the two sacred holidays on the Christian calendar — we all understand that,” wrote Howard Simon, director of the ACLU’s Florida division. “But it is inappropriate for a public official to use the trappings of his office to promote religious views to the exclusion of others.”
Souto, 79, is a former state senator and state representative, making him one of the longest-serving elected officials in county government. His letter touched on a larger national controversy, with President Donald Trump leading a backlash against perceived efforts to discourage the celebration of “Christmas” rather than the “holidays” during December.
“We’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word Christmas because it’s not politically correct,” Trump told the Values Voters Summit in October, according to The Hill. “Well guess what? We’re saying merry Christmas again.”
Jorge Rosell, a real estate broker in Miami, said it seemed overly sensitive to turn Souto’s holiday letter into a controversy.
“I don’t believe that Commissioner Souto meant to offend anyone or leave anyone out,” said Rosell, who is Catholic. “He was responding to this time of year which is a very special time for Christians of course. And he was just following his heart.”
Joan Schaeffer, who is Jewish and a longtime homeowner in Souto’s district, said the commissioner’s letter left her in tears. “I was very angry. And I cried,” said Schaeffer, a semi-retired social worker and former volunteer president of Temple Israel of Greater Miami. “I just feel so sad that somebody who supposedly represents me would do something that hurtful to my and my people.”
Barbara Sangetti, a real estate agent who lives in the Kendall portion of Souto’s suburban district, said she received the “Dear Friends” letter in the mail this week. One side had the message in English and the other in Spanish. A photo of Souto, who faces reelection next year, sits near the top.
“You don’t think about recognizing the rest of the season that people are celebrating? It’s wrong on so many levels,” Sangetti said. “This is an elected official. … And I’m Catholic.”
In his letter, Souto offered constituents a dose of philosophy in wishing them a “very Merry Christmas.”
“We, all of us brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “as passengers on this huge vehicle called Planet Earth, going round and around until we disappear, following the designs of our God, the Almighty, more than ever feel the need for love, for peace, for happiness, living this mystery called ‘life.’ ”