For generations, Christmas trees, nativity scenes, Menorahs and other traditional holiday items have been displayed in places of business and public squares, largely without objection. Groups could sing carols, schools could hold pageants, children could exchange Christmas cards, and towns across America could place Christmas trees and menorahs in front of courthouses.
Today, however, it seems the first order of business every December may soon be for Americans to consult their lawyers. For only then might they know whether they are in the proper setting or sufficiently in compliance with complicated Supreme Court “multi-pronged” or “balancing” tests before celebrating.
For example, the Plano, Tex., Independent School District last year banned “Christmas colors,” and prohibited students from handing out candy canes and pencils with religious messages on them — even barring parents from exchanging religious Christmas items with other parents. Most troubling of all, at a time when good men and women in uniform are risking their lives for the cause of freedom around the globe, the district prohibited students from writing “Merry Christmas” on cards to soldiers because the phrase might “offend someone.”
And in Dodgeville, Wis., the Ridgeway Elementary School changed the name of "Silent Night" to "Cold in the Night." Sung to the tune of "Silent Night," the lyrics were secularized as: "Cold in the night, no one in sight, winter winds whirl and bite, how I wish I were happy and warm, safe with my family out of the storm." Just this week, the school changed the policy only after massive public outcry and a campaign by concerned advocacy groups.
Hostility to faith, though, extends well beyond the classroom. Just last week, two Florida cities jointly tried to ban a private display of a nativity scene on public property, only backing down in the face of lawsuits. The ACLU in 2003 filed suit against Cranston City, R.I., challenging a menorah and a nativity scene. In Boston, the city changed the name of the annual Christmas tree to a “holiday tree,” sparking significant criticism in the community.
This secularization, however, highlights a more pervasive reality. The Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights held a hearing in 2004 to explore hostility to religious expression in the public square. The results were shocking. The Liberty Legal Institute, a Texas-based advocacy group, documented more than 50 pages of examples of hostility to religious expression.
For example, an 11-year-old Muslim student testified before the subcommittee that she was suspended for wearing her religious hair covering to school, in violation of the school’s dress code. The school allowed it only after confronted with a Justice Department investigation. In St. Louis, a 12-year-old elementary school student was reprimanded by her school for quietly saying a prayer before lunch in the school cafeteria. Public high school students in Massachusetts were suspended after trying to hand out candy canes with biblical passages attached.
Some suggest that these examples simply reflect “changing societal norms.” The truth is, these issues reflect the fear of litigation that city and state governments, as well as private citizens, feel over religious displays and their concern about crossing the often-misunderstood line between church and state.
And who can blame them? One need look no further than the muddled First Amendment jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court to understand the state of confusion underlying society’s view toward religious expression in the public square, including that related to Christmas.
The First Amendment clearly provides that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor interfering with the free exercise thereof. Nothing in these provisions requires government to be hostile to religious speech or religious liberty. The Constitution nowhere requires government to expel expressions of faith from the public square nor forbids government from acknowledging — indeed celebrating — the important role faith plays in the lives of the American people.
Yet some courts, led by the U.S. Supreme Court, have demonstrated an unmistakable hostility toward religious expression in the public square. This effort to cleanse virtually all things religious from public life, including Christmas, is impossible to ignore and is contrary to our nation’s founding principles.
Public expression of faith — one of the very freedoms most cherished by our Founding Fathers — should not be allowed to fall victim to a pervasive misunderstanding of the First Amendment perpetuated by a handful of secularists and judicial activists. In particular, during this time of religious celebration for so many Americans, we should remember that we should, by right, be free to exercise our religious beliefs openly and to celebrate collectively those beliefs as we choose.