Crèches and Santa on the courthouse lawn

Thursday, December 24, 1998

I’ve finally accepted the fact that I’m a lot more likely to see Santa and his flying reindeer in the flesh than I am to change anyone’s mind about the inappropriateness of displaying Nativity scenes on public property.

Unfortunately, it’s not only my attempts at persuasion that have failed. Once again, despite several well-publicized lawsuits concerning the constitutionality of Nativity displays, many communities continue to flout the law and to dare religious minorities to challenge the majority’s wishes. As a result, this holiday season already has seen courts in Missouri, Arkansas and Massachusetts order city officials to remove Nativity scenes from public displays.

Rulings like these invariably invite anti-ACLU grumbling and complaints about the judicial system. In Arkansas, for example, Gov. Mike Huckabee declared that there was nothing wrong with including religious symbols in public Christmas displays because “Jesus Christ is the essence of Christmas.”

“Let us not forget that the heritage of this holiday is one of recognizing Jesus Christ coming into this world,” added Huckabee, who is also a Baptist minister, “and it should not be overly offensive for people to recognize that.”

It’s not overly offensive for people to recognize and respect the religious beliefs of others. It is, however, offensive for the government to endorse one set of religious beliefs over another, particularly when the beliefs endorsed are those embraced by a significant majority of the population. This endorsement isolates the minority of non-believers and threatens their religious freedom.

Huckabee’s comments illustrate the irony that seems lost on many community leaders. If Huckabee is correct that “Jesus Christ is the essence of Christmas,” then local governments have no business erecting public displays to celebrate a religious holiday. If, on the other hand, Huckabee is correct that Christmas has at least in part mutated into a nonreligious winter celebration enjoyed by all citizens, then no reason exists to include religious symbols in a secular holiday display.

Many elected officials, however, want it both ways. Because they want their public holiday displays to endorse Christian religious beliefs, they prominently place Nativity scenes on government property. These officials then attempt to save the Nativity scenes from adverse judicial rulings by surrounding “the essence of Christmas” with illuminated Santas, styrofoam snowmen and plastic candy canes to dilute the religious message they’re so insistent on sending.

This result should offend everyone. Christians should be offended that the government is ridiculing sacred religious beliefs by putting the birth of Jesus on a public par with Kris Kringle and Frosty. Non-Christians should be offended that the government is injecting one group’s religious beliefs into a secular holiday celebration. And taxpayers everywhere should be offended that local governments are defying the law and risking expensive litigation for a purpose so unnecessary.

To me, the most troubling aspect of these now-annual battles over public religious displays is that they are so hypocritical. In Turon, Kan., for example, residents angry over the city’s decision to remove a lighted cross from the top of the city’s Christmas tree cut the tree to pieces and stripped the city’s holiday display of the rest of its decorations. After completing their vandalism, the citizens blamed the resident who had threatened to sue the city if religious symbols were displayed in the city park.

Are we truly to believe that these people acted in the spirit of Christ’s birth? What happened to “turn the other cheek” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Isn’t Christianity supposed to be a religion of tolerance, understanding and forgiveness?

Then there’s the Kentucky case in which a group of citizens is challenging a county’s decision to close its offices on Good Friday. The group claims that the closing endorses Christianity. The county, which initially closed the offices in order to encourage observance of the religious holiday, now defends itself by claiming that Good Friday is nothing more than the start of spring break. Even more incredibly, the county now boasts that the closing should be permitted because it has done everything possible to drain Good Friday of its religious meaning.

The hypocrisy associated with draining Good Friday of religious meaning in order to allow the closing of government offices is frightening. It suggests both an utter disregard for the solemnity of the religious holiday and a complete ignorance of the fact that religious freedom and government endorsement of religion cannot coexist. I suppose the next thing we’ll see are public displays of crosses surrounded by giant Easter bunnies and baskets of colored eggs.

For now, though, my Christmas wish is that cities and towns everywhere will hang lights, decorate trees and build grand holiday displays that celebrate the season but do not offend those who believe differently or who do not believe at all.

That, after all, is the Christian thing to do.

Douglas Lee is a partner in the Dixon, Ill., law firm of Ehrmann Gehlbach Beckman Badger & Lee and a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.