Culture wars over Christmas displays: where the law stands

Christmas displays have been a big part of the culture wars for years, and 2009 is no different. Hot spots include Sonoma County in California, where angel and star ornaments in government buildings caused controversy.

The star has been returned to the top of the Christmas tree in the Sonoma County Information Systems Department office in California following the lifting of a ban on decorative stars and angels on Wednesday.

It’s become as much of a holiday tradition as eggnog and tree-trimming. Controversies over religious displays during the Christmas season have been stirring emotions for years, and 2009 is no different.

The latest dispute cropped up in California's Sonoma County, when an atheist complained that the stars and angels on Christmas trees amounted to a government endorsement of Christianity. Earlier this week, the ornaments in question were banned.

“People can worship in their homes. They can celebrate Christmas in their church. They can do all that,” Irv Sutley, an atheist activist, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “They just don't have the right to intrude on government property.”

Later in the week, however, after the incident received widespread attention, the ban on the ornaments was lifted.

The legal standard for holiday displays was established by the US Supreme Court in 1989 in the case Allegheny v. ACLU. The court ruled that a Nativity scene at a county courthouse in Pittsburgh was a violation of the Constitution's "establishment clause" (prohibiting government establishment of religion), the foundation for separation of church and state. But the court also ruled, in the same case, that there was nothing unconstitutional about a display of a Hanukkah menorah on city property, and in a separate ruling the court decided that municipalities can use religious elements in Christmas displays if they don’t appear to advocate any one religion.

A controversy over a cross in Holliston, Mass., has also added to the culture wars over Christmas decorations. Earlier this month, city officials denied a firefighter’s request to erect a cross on top of a fire station. Erecting the cross had been a firefighter tradition until the city ordered it removed over legal concerns in 2004. While the city decided not to give the firefighter permission, it did say the cross could be placed in front of Town Hall in an area that the town has designated for holiday displays.

In Kokomo, Ind., many residents complained when holiday lights on the courthouse lawn included a whale and the Loch Ness Monster.

"If we put the religious or Christmas decorations up, we'd be offending a whole other group of citizens and taxpayers," a city commissioner told a local news station.

“In such a litigious environment, where public displays of religion are routinely challenged, many public officials take the easy way out and surrender the square to a complete secularization of the winter holidays. No manger. No menorah. No lawsuit,” wrote Randy Singer, author of “The Judge Who Stole Christmas,” in a 2005 op-ed for USA Today.

He said government Christmas displays could include religious symbols “so long as the religious symbols do not predominate." He continued, "Privately sponsored displays in public forums are granted even greater latitude. The bottom line: Religious symbols in the public square are not constitutional contraband.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which many religious conservatives charge has been “waging a war against Christmas,” still takes issue with religious displays on government properties.

"Every year around this time, the 'culture warriors' renew their holiday howls decrying the ACLU's 'War on Christmas.' This ritual of bombast and disinformation misleads many people to believe that the ACLU is on a mission to remove Christmas from the public consciousness," the ACLU said in a statement. “What the ACLU does oppose is the government favoring a specific set of religious beliefs to the exclusion of others. The Bill of Rights establishes that the government should not be in the business of endorsing any one religion.”

Merry Hyatt of Redding, Calif., would disagree with the ACLU on that issue. Ms. Hyatt wants to pass a law that would require Christmas carols in public schools during the holidays. She is collecting signatures to put the issue on the state ballot.

It’s a cause that has some support among other Redding Tea Party members. Erin Ryan, president of the local branch, told the Record Searchlight in Redding, "Bottom line is Christmas is about Christmas.... That's why we have it. It's not about winter solstice or Kwanzaa. It's like, 'wow you guys, it's called Christmas for a reason.' "


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