Christmas in July July 23, 2010

Christmas in July

— by Brittany Meyer

It’s that time of year again — time to revamp the “religious winter holiday display on public property” debate. It’s a discussion that never seems to take a holiday of its own. This week, Leesburg, VA decided to decide and then decided to decide later whether holiday displays would be allowed on Loudoun County courthouse grounds this upcoming December. One side, the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee wants to ban all displays. The other side, including many community members and Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio, thinks all displays should be allowed — apparently even atheist ones.

Holding aside my belief that there are bigger unconstitutional fish to fry and arguing about whether a “Merry Christmas” sign should greet us on court house steps only serves to make atheists look petty and without more important grievances, the case law on religious holiday displays is, in a word, wrong.

In Lynch v. Donnelly, a Christmas display including Santa and a nativity scene was challenged in the Supreme Court. The court found the display constitutional because taken along with the rest of the scene, it had the “legitimate secular purpose” of celebrating the season and the origins of Christmas.

In Allegheny County v. ACLU, two displays went up on the chopping block — a nativity scene and a Christmas Tree along with a Menorah. Here, the nativity scene did violate the constitution because it was alone and without other Christmas symbols, like a statue of Santa Claus. The Menorah was fine, because it was with a Christmas Tree.

I disagree with both of these decisions — the establishment clause prohibits endorsement of religion over no religion as much as it prohibits the endorsement of one religion over another. SCOTUS is not perfect (try as lawyers and law students might to convince themselves otherwise) and sometimes they get it wrong before they get it right.

Assuming then, legally, all a display depicting the virgin birth of the Christian savior need do to become ‘secular’ is be placed with an overweight man and his flying reindeer, Loudoun County is doing the diplomatic thing by deciding between all displays or none at all. Either of these options should be constitutional under any evaluation. It will be interesting to see what they decide.

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  • Jon

    Somewhat tangentially, Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun” comes to mind when I think about xmas in the summer.

  • JD

    A nativity scene “secularized” by a Santa Claus doesn’t really work for me, it’s not much of a historical context, nor is it really news to Americans that a lot of people use Dec 25 to celebrate Jesus. There’s also nothing so expensive about a nativity scene hat can’t be done on someone’s private front lawn. What would put it in historical context would be different kinds of Solstice festivals, I recall a couple other older religions having a holiday on Dec 25 too.

  • Trace

    “One side, the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee wants to ban all displays.”

    Me too.

  • ckitching

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Fight the sectarian holiday displays, and you get painted as a spoilsport who wants to take away everyone’s fun. Don’t fight them, and they’re offered as further evidence that the nation is Christian and thus Christians are deserving of special privilege. And as always, no one in the media ever asks those who want the displays why they can’t just be put on private property instead.

  • Jeff Dale

    What ckitching said.

  • Gibbon

    Personally I think this whole issue is superfluous. Why this need to put a private display on public property? We don’t have this issue here in New Zealand, even though there is no piece of legislation prohibiting it. From what I can remember there has never been a debate over whether a Nativity scene should be put on display inside or outside government buildings. Every religious display that I can remember, keeping in mind that technically Christmas is no longer a religious holiday; has always been on private property owned by the particular religious institution. So why is there this need, in the United States at least, to put religious displays up on/in government buildings when there is ample opportunity to erect them on church property?

    What are the chances that churches outnumber government institutions in the USA?

  • Dan W

    Well, I think they at least have two fair options. All displays allowed or none allowed is better than only allowing one or two religious groups’ holiday displays. I’m on the side of no displays at all in this case. People (and companies too I guess) can put up all sorts of things on their own private property during their religious holidays. Why do they need to have their Nativity scenes, menorahs, and so forth displayed on public property, in government buildings?

  • Unholy Holly

    I live in Loudoun County and have been watching this for awhile. The whole thing got started when the grounds committee wanted to stop the displays because it was damaging the lawn, not for any “church and state” reasons. But once the ban took place, then the political/religous yammering started in. Now it is getting national attention and has become a bit of an embarrassment. The local paper featured a front-page photo of a man with his daughter at the latest board meeting, and she was smiling broadly while holding up a jesus-on-the-cross statue. Made me wince.

  • Aric

    In most cases I don’t think these are worth fighting for. It may be technically unconstitutional, but it distracts from fighting real threats and feeds Christians’ delusions of persecution.

  • The claim that putting a couple plastic reindeer near the crèche sounds to me like saying ‘sectarian prayers before a city meeting while dancing a jig is okay, because dancing a jig is a completely secular activity.’ It just doesn’t work, and government shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

    Every private property owner has the freedom of religious practice to put up whatever display they want, within the law. No religious institution would be expected to put up a religious display of a different religion (ex. a Christian church wouldn’t put up a Divali display, and vice versa), why would think it was a good idea to have government put up theirs and other religions displays?

    And since these displays usually go up around Christmas and religious displays are not going up other times of year for other holidays (except maybe Easter), it has the appearance of being centered on the Christian holiday. What if some year a city decided that religious displays would be allowed in the couple weeks leading up to Ramadan, and it would be fair because all religions would be allowed to put up their displays at that time. And next year the displays would be allowed in the couple weeks leading up to Holi. Christians would go nuts…thus proving that it was all about endorsement of Christmas in the first place.

    I don’t have any problem with seasonal displays. Put some lights up in the cold dark winter, the whole winter not just the end of December. There could also be spring seasonal displays budgeted in at the same time…maybe some flowers for the front of city hall.

    Hemant, you say there ‘are bigger unconstitutional fish to fry’. What’s bigger? I tend to think that unconstitutional is unconstitutional no matter how big or small. Even if 100% of a town is the same religion. Even if they all, including the entire city council and the mayor, went to the same church…there would still be very good reasons to maintain the constitutional protections against endorsement, allowing for freedom of religious practice and there being no religious test for public office or appointment. If they are good enough in a situation like that, they should be a really good idea in a town that is made up of different religions and people of no religion. Some people would say that the ‘In God We Trust’ on the money is a small issue, but it can lead to people saying stuff like this.

  • Aric Says:

    but it distracts from fighting real threats and feeds Christians’ delusions of persecution.

    Like I said to Hemant…why isn’t this a ‘real’ issue? Christians elected to positions in government decide that for a whole month out of the year there will be a message on government property of a religious nature (and they toss in a couple reindeer to make it secular). Certainly, we need to fight issues where taxpayer money is given to religion as well, but if people continue to have the perception that government is endorsing their flavor of religion over others, or religion in general, we are going to have a harder time stopping that sort of thing from happening. A prayer before a city council meeting (even if it is non-sectarian) can put the idea in someones mind that government and religion mixing is no problem. Just like the link I had to the woman who was saying “Because ‘In God We Trust’ is on the money, all atheists should leave the county”…the little things endorse the bigger theocratic ideas that can be more dangerous. I think we need to be holding the line on all of them at the same time.

  • I agree that nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus are purely religious, and putting them beside Santa or a tree doesn’t make them any less so.

    However, I have absolutely no problem with displays of Santa Claus, trees decorated with festive and religiously-neutral decorations, symbolic gift boxes, etc. These things that have no direct association with any particular faith are fine.

    In fact, the character of Santa Claus largely transcends religious belief these days anyway, having no association whatsoever with religious doctrine, and only serves as a symbol for the common and entirely secular idea of giving and good will towards others.

    Although, I don’t get why this issue would come up in July. Christmas is in December and attempts to this summer holiday season in the north (or winter in the south) with that tradition are just silly.

  • Aric

    Cat’s Staff,

    I’m not saying that there aren’t any bad consequences, but here are a couple of responses.

    Anything relating to education is a bigger issue. Prayer at graduation, theology in science class, etc. Also I think words are more important than images because words have more specific meaning. I would object more strongly to ‘Praise the Lord, Jesus is born!’ than I would to a nativity scene.

    Also, a big part of the reason we celebrate Christmas and why it is such an important holiday in our culture is because of our Christian heritage. Sure there are also secular reasons why it’s on the day it is on, etc. but Christmas being at least partly a Christian holiday is a historical fact. A nativity scene can be seen as a recognition of the history, not an endorsement of Christianity. I don’t have any problem saying ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays’. It’s just a name.

  • muggle

    Ban the religious icons, including menorahs. (What b.s. that is; we’ll stop fighting the display of your religion if you put mine up too.) Secular things like Santa and trees, okay.

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