Yuletide season brings flurry of protest over holiday religious symbols

The holiday decorations are up. The department store Santas are putting in their annual appearance. Yet amid all the Christmas glitter, the phones at American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offices around the country are ringing with unusual persistence. At the other end are people with litigation rather than "Peace on Earth" in mind.

"Beginning in November, people start wanting to sue every religious symbol in sight," sighs Mary Alice Babusci, director of the Pittsburgh ACLU.

Usually, ACLU representatives gracefully try to avoid these religious confrontations. The exception is when they believe there may be a violation of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

This Yuletide there are two such cases pending. One is in Denver. The other is in Santa Monica, Calif. These involve cases where the city government has traditionally sponsored a nativity scene as part of their holiday decorations.

In Denver, the creche is erected on the Court House steps. In Santa Monica, an elaborate "Nativity Pageant" is set up in a city park.

"This practice [of city government's putting up nativity scenes] is widespread, and I expect we will see an increasing number of lawsuits on this issue in the next few years," says Mark Terry, a southern California ACLU staffer who specializes in church-state issues.

Generally, the ACLU holds that if a city government owns such a display or has city workers erect it, then this is a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. They do not oppose religious displays on public land or buildings as long as all legitimate religions have equal access. They also support the rights of individuals to exercise their personal religious beliefs.

"This confuses quite a few people," admits Jim Joy, head of the Denver ACLU. At the same time that they are suing the City of Denver to remove the nativity scene, the ACLU here is defending a man who painted religious messages on his house. Denver has an ordinance prohibiting the display of religious symbols on homes except for a period beginning Nov. 10 and ending Jan. 9.

"I agree with [US Chief Justice] Earl Warren when he said that mixing church and state cheapens both," Mr. Joy explains.

The course that the California and Colorado cases appear to be following is quite different.

In Santa Monica, the pageant is being put up by private rather than public workers this year. And it appears as if the city will accede to other ACLU demands affecting the display, says Mr. Terry, adding, "I consider it a model example of how simply these problems can be worked out."

In Denver, however, Mayor Bill McNichol has made a point of defending the display. "It is a city tradition and the mayor thinks it is morally right," says an office spokeswoman. According to the city attorney working on the case, their defense is that the nativity scene is "not a religious but a holiday symbol."

The Denver mayor has got thousands of letters in support of his position and ACLU members here have become more or less inured to charges that they are anti-Christian.

"Many of these letters [backing the mayor] lend support to our position because they talk about Christian government," says Joy, adding, "But we don't have a Christian government, we have a secular government."

While ACLU members see these suits as a matter of principle and public education, they do have mixed feelings about them.

"It's hard to argue that these types of displays are anything but innocuous. Still, it's a matter of whether or not we take the First Amendment seriously," says Terry.

In general, he and his colleagues expect church-state issues to become more common in the next few years as a result of the growth of the conservative evangelical Christian movement.

While these ACLU officials consider questions such as school prayer and the rights of prisoners to practice their religion as far more important than Christmas symbolism, they expect their Yuletide seasons to be especially busy for some time to come.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.