By Pat Centner, AFA Journal staff writer
October 2003 – Christmas bells will soon be ringing, and American cities both large and small will sparkle with holiday exhibits featuring dazzling lights, ornaments, and trappings of the season on properties both public and private.
There will be huge Christmas trees, bright green wreaths with flowing red ribbons, and Santa and his reindeer racing across the lawns of government offices far and wide. But at numerous public properties, one display will be notable for its absence – the display that for many years has been the traditional Christian symbol for Christmas – the Nativity scene.
In recent years, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with help from the media, have been successful in convincing the public that displaying a Nativity scene on public property violates the First Amendment and its so-called “separation of church and state.” Sadly, our nation’s citizens have been deceived to such a degree that the mere suggestion of a city or town displaying a Nativity scene often brings an “Oh, no, we can’t do that! It’s against the law!”
Actually, it is not against the law, if certain simple requirements are met – requirements that involve whether an exhibit is publicly- or privately-sponsored.
➤ Publicly-sponsored Nativity scenes are installed and maintained by public officials on public property. Such displays are deemed constitutional if a secular symbol of Christmas is included within the same parameter of view (a Christmas tree placed behind the manger, for example).
A case-in-point involved a Florida resident who sought help from the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy (CLP) last December. Ditsy Carmen Suarez, of Miami-Dade County, noticed that while the County Permit and Inspection Center’s holiday display contained religious symbols of both the Jewish and Kwanzaa traditions, there was no symbol depicting the Christian tradition.
After contacting one county official after another, she was finally told that including a creche in the holiday display would violate the “separation of church and state.” Suarez then contacted the CLP. After Senior Litigation Counsel Mike DePrimo wrote a letter in which he pointed out the unconstitutionality of their argument, the county promptly agreed to display the creche.
“This was yet another case in which ignorance of the law created irrational fear of violation of the separation of church and state,” said DePrimo. “In numerous cases, the Supreme Court has made it clear that religious expressions must be given equal place alongside secular expressions in government settings.”
In a case on the other side of the coin, the nine aldermen of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, voted unanimously to accept a Nativity scene for inclusion in their city’s holiday display despite the threat of a lawsuit from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Resident Roseann Crowns led a group of citizens in offering a scene for display after determining that the city’s holiday exhibit contained only secular symbols. Crowns and the group were assisted by Liberty Counsel of Orlando, Florida, which cited two Supreme Court cases in which the public display of a nativity scene alongside other secular symbols was found to be constitutional.
➤ Privately sponsored Nativity scenes are installed and maintained by private citizens on public property. These are common in public parks where citizens and/or private groups are often allowed to erect Christmas displays. It’s important to note that if there are secular expressions of Christmas on display, religious expressions must also be allowed.
In a privately sponsored exhibit, secular symbols are not necessary within the context of the Nativity display. However, a disclaimer sign is needed, with wording along these lines: “This display is privately sponsored by ABC. The City of XYZ neither endorses nor opposes the display.”
➤ Home and/or private business Nativity scenes are legal as long as they are confined to the home or business property.