Ask Richard: My City Government is Now Running the Christmas Festival November 14, 2011

Ask Richard: My City Government is Now Running the Christmas Festival

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

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.

Thanks!
Anthony

Dear Anthony,

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.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.


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  • Gerry

    You know it may be possible for the letter-writer to deal with this in a positive manner instead of being the “complainer”, especially since this is the first time the city has undertaken the Christmas pageant.
    Suppose the letter-writer proactively volunteers (maybe not for this year, but definitely for next) to be the fundraiser and make the point that if citizens and businesses donate to fund the pageant, there will never be a basis for the secular-minded to complain about the religious aspects. the sales pitch could be, if you donate, the ACLU won’t come in and stop our pageant.
    You’d be a hero!

  • Patrick9e

    In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that nativity scenes on government property did not amount to a violation of the First Amendment, because they were part of the Christmas celebration and Christmas has been declared to have a legitimate secular purpose, hence its status as one of 10 federal holidays.

    So, I don’t think there’s much of a problem with the city sponsoring this Christmas event, even if there are bits of Christian mythology interspersed. I’m the rare atheist that isn’t offended by the Jesus-y parts of Christmas. It looks nice, just like all the other decorations. No one is trying to convert anyone to Christianity, it’s just part of the tradition. I grew up in public school performing the nativity bit, and I’m still an atheist! I’m sure us atheists wouldn’t care if they displayed myths from other religions, would we? 

    Besides, what is Santa Claus if not a myth from Christianity/Norse paganism? Isn’t that just as much a promotion of religion as displaying Jesus?

  • Anonymous

    I propose two possible approaches for allowing the city to support the festival with public money.  Contact officials who are in charge and say either:

    1. It would be a shame if this were the cause of an anti-establishment lawsuit, better be safe than sorry now, and pay for *no Jesus*.  Include only secular stuff like Bob Cratchits and Santas and Frosties. If a church or collection of churches want to sponsor a Joseph & Mary parade or creche during the festival, allow them to do so, but make them pay the cost.

    or

    2. It would be a shame if this were the cause of an anti-establishment lawsuit, better be safe than sorry now, and, if you’re going to pay for Jesus, pay for non-Christian things too–incorporate some traditions from Hanukkah and the Persian holiday of Yalda/Chelleh for example, and make sure they have equal time.

  • Rich Wilson

    Based on the description, I doubt this is illegal.  Much as the “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” folks would like us to believe, Christmas isn’t a Christian holiday.  It’s a federal holiday that everyone gets off whether they’re Atheist, Muslim, Jewish or Christian.  And although I get that the whole baby in a manger thing is Christian, unless the event includes a sermon focusing on John 3:16 it sounds pretty secular to me.

    I had a kinda sorta reverse situation in my town in which the town stopped hosting a 4th of July festival, and a local megachurch took it over.  And since they’re footing the bill, they can proselytize to their heart’s content.  Including telling us some “Only in America” stories, about famous people who have been huge successes.  I wonder if they know that both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are agnostic/atheist?  I wonder if they’ll add Steve Jobs next year?  Anyway, I digress.   I asked AU about it, and they said “probably legal, but the details…”.  The one part that I still wonder about is that they do take over a city park for the day, and I’d like to know what they pay the city for it.  Or what they pay for extra police staffing.  And I’m curious to know if they would accept my application to be a sponsor so I could set up a booth for AU, or FBB or FFRF…  Hopefully I can make it to some council meetings this year to find out.

  • Anonymous

    Yes but in 1989 the court ruled that the creche would only pass constitutional muster if it was part of a larger secular display. Thus in Pittsburgh v ACLU it was ok because it was in conjunction with a menorah and a giant xmas tree, but in allegheny v ACLU it was not ok because it was a solitary creche with the words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” above it.

    So the issue at heart here would seem to be, if the city (I think we’re talking about St. Charles, MO here [I live close, though outside of that city, and have heard mutterings about it]) has a large dedicated, and city funded, Las Posadas parade but lacks a similar celebration of the Maccabean Revolt (Chanukah) or celebrations of mid-winter, etc, I would need to conclude that it would not pass muster, at least so far as the parade goes.  Though it also appears (if it is indeed St. Charles, MO the web-site regarding the celebration can be found here) that there is no effort by the city to incoroporate any other non-christian mid-winter activities as a part of their celebration, which would make it a prime example of the sort of display disallowed by Allegheny v ACLU.

    But IANAL so I am probably wrong.

  • Erik

    The grey areas are the most interesting ones

  • I dont see Christmas as a christian holiday.

  • Trace

    “Spoiler Alert: it’s Jesus”darn it! ;)Best of luck!

  • William Garvey

    I look forward to the day that someone can imply that his town is backward without describing it as “white.”  In fact, let’s start that trend now..

  • Ndonnan

    Where i live in melbourne australia we have a round of the formula 1 gran prix. it costs the government $46million last year,always  there are protests because not all inner city people like noisey race cars,but you know what,it makes some people happy so the rest say,”oh well let them have their stupid race”,thats part of living in community.I lose a days pay for a public holiday for a horse race,the melbourne cup,every year,bad luck.Dont begrudge a large group of people who want to celebrate the birth of a person whos best known for telling people to “love your neighbour as you love yourself,and forgive those who hate you”,.Sure a lot have used religion to control and manipulate others,but isnt that typical of mankind,Try living in a communist country and see how happy you are.

  • As I repeatedly made the point in my response, people are free to have their religious festivals, just not free to make everyone pay for them.

    The “try living in a communist country” ploy is a straw man. We will be living in a totalitarian country if we don’t diligently fight the constant nibbling away of our First Amendment rights by people who do not have the integrity to uphold everyone’s rights, instead of just their own preferences. 

  • Rich Wilson

    I have it on good authority that the Soviet Union was a fine place to live for people who were willing to swallow known government BS and not speak out.  As long as you nodded, smiled and toed the party line, things were pretty good.  It just sucked for the type of people who insist on making a point, ‘on principle’.

    Heck, if I had to choose, I’d take the Soviet Union in the 70s/80s over Saudi Arabia today in a heartbeat.

  • Sounds like St. Charles to me. And the city is involved in a controversy in which they didn’t rehire the actor who plays Sugar Plum Fairy because she said a curse word. The story made it to Anderson Cooper last night http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/15/video-the-ridiculist-firing-of-the-sugarplum-fairy/?hpt=ac_mid