Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I live in a Midwestern suburb in the heart of the Jesus-belt. Our community is predominantly white, predominantly conservative, and predominantly Christian.
Every year, on our historical Main Street, there is a month-long Christmas Festival, with dozens of costumed characters (Historic Santas, Dickens Characters, Victorian Carolers, etc.) spreading the excitement and joy of the season to people from all over the world. The event also brings a lot of commerce to the locally-owned shops and historical attractions in our town. My wife and I are atheists, but love the spectacle, food, magic, and Santa(!) of a good-old Secular Christmas celebration.
The event used to be run by the local historical society, so no problem. We could enjoy the Santas and the Bob Cratchits and roll our eyes at the various Christian moments, such as overt messages during skits, and a Las Posadas parade in which Joseph and Mary travel up our main street, looking for someplace for their baby to be born (Spoiler Alert: it’s Jesus). This year, however, the City itself has taken over the administration of the event. The actors playing the parts are paid city employees.
This is our dilemma:
Is it okay for our City Government to host a specifically Christian event? By including the Christian aspects, they are endorsing Christianity, no? Furthermore, what should be done if this is illegal? Nobody wants to ruin Christmas! Many of the actors in the event are our friends, and many of the shop-owners rely on the boost in holiday revenue that the festival brings. Is there any reconciliation between living an examined, free-thinking life that just happens to include Secular Christmas, and endorsing a government-run Jesus-mill? We are truly vexed by this conundrum, and would love your help.
In my non-lawyer opinion, this sounds like it could be a violation of the Establishment clause in the First Amendment, and so it might be illegal. But the devil is in the details, so to speak.
If a city “hosting” a specific religion’s festivities means they simply allow private organizations to do it all and pay for it all, that is probably not a breach of church-state separation, as long as they also allow other groups to express their religious or non-religious celebrations too, if they wish to do so.
But if a city uses taxpayer money, public employees on paid work time rather than volunteered time, publicly funded materials, insurance, and facilities to do this, then the city would be forcing all the taxpayers to pay for the promotion of one religion over others, and religion over non-religion. So the use of public money and a strongly stated or implied endorsement of one religion are what would make it a Constitutional no-no.
What to do about it is a much more sticky matter.
Your description actually sounds like much of it would be fun even for a softhearted Scrooge like myself, so I can understand your not wanting to spoil it all for everyone. It’s clear that you don’t want to actually stop the festival. You just want to stop the city government from paying for it, especially the strongly religious aspects of it, and officially or with strong implication endorsing a particular religion. So you need to find out about those details, especially the financial details.
Whatever are the reasons why the city took over the administration of the Christmas Festival this year might be a factor in how easy or difficult it will be to get them to relinquish it again. If the economy has taken its toll on the historical society, and they just can’t do it, that is sad, but it is still not an excuse for the city to start picking up the tab with public money. The local churches and local businesses should be chipping in to a private Christmas Festival Committee to pay for the celebrations, and the city should just be expediting all the permits, traffic adjustments and infrastructure requirements.
As you have indicated, the event brings in tourism and stimulates the local businesses, so anticipate that the city will try to rationalize their involvement as purely for the promotion of the town’s economy. That might be a part of their motives, or even their one and only motive, but that still does not mitigate the improper commingling of government with religion.
Sometimes these local government dalliances with religion are minor, and sometimes they’re egregious. Unfortunately, courts lately are not very interested in upholding church-state separation on the principle alone. They dismiss such cases if they don’t see “standing,” a clear injury to the plaintiff to justify the suit. What most strongly gives such cases standing is loss of money. Try to find out for certain if city funds are actually going into the festival, and whether or not the city employees are being paid for their time working on it, and if they are making any distinction between the semi-secular aspects and the overtly religious aspects. Then contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the ACLU, or all three for their impressions and advice.
One good reason to make some kind of objection to this now is it’s the first time that the city has done it. Every year that this goes on unchallenged will encourage people to use the argument from tradition, essentially, “We’ve done this for years, and nobody ever complained before.” It’s not a good legal defense, but it still adds to the difficulty of changing people’s minds.
It might be too late in the season to stop the juggernaut this year. The city will want the festival to happen one way or another, and even if they see where they should not be involved, it will take time to find a private group that can take back the responsibilities. Hopefully, they will keep within their proper boundaries next year.
The problem is that you might have to be the one who is publicly out there making the complaint. Receiving a letter from the FFRF, Americans United, or the ACLU about an unnamed citizen’s complaint might not be enough to convince the city to stop. Anonymous complaints tell them that whoever is unhappy about it is also intimidated, so they might feel confident that they can continue with impunity.
So if it turns out that you have to be the public “Grinch,” one thing to consider is the possibility of a backlash from the community against you and your family. It won’t matter how carefully, clearly, and repeatedly you explain that you are only against the inappropriate involvement of the city in the Christmas Festival. People will characterize you as being “against Christmas,” and against helping the local economy as well. If you are dependent upon the good will of the public for your livelihood, such as running a small business in the town, you may face calls for a boycott. If you are employed in that city, you might face negative repercussions in your workplace.
Get information, get advice, and get allies, and make your decisions with your eyes open. Hopefully, a well-crafted letter on the desk of a sensible city official will get things properly remedied. Whatever way it goes, I wish you and your family a merry Co-opted Pagan Winter Solstice Holiday season.