Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II wandered into yet another “culture war” battle in August when he issued an advisory opinion intended to guide local government officials on how to deal with Christmas Nativity scenes and other religious displays on public property.
Cuccinelli, in an official opinion Aug. 20, said local governments and government employees may erect religious displays under certain circumstances. The opinion, Americans United maintains, is flawed because it downplays church-state separation and emphasizes government accommodation of religion.
“This opinion reads more like an op-ed than a legal advisory,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Cuccinelli is encouraging local governments to wade into a deeply controversial arena of the law without adequate guidance.
“This is almost certain to lead to bitter community divisiveness,” Lynn continued. “It is a green light to Religious Right activists to cajole local officials into erecting sectarian displays on public property. Unless local officials are extremely careful, this is likely to lead to lawsuits.”
Lynn said it is particularly repugnant that the attorney general is joining the Religious Right’s annual campaign to impose religion on all Americans at Christmas.
“Cuccinelli is turning Christmas, a holiday sacred to many, into another front in the culture war,” said Lynn. “That’s deplorable and about as far from the spirit of the season as you can get.
“If Cuccinelli wants to see a Nativity scene, why doesn’t he put one in his front yard at home?” Lynn asked. “He should not try to impose his personal religious beliefs on all Virginians through government action.”
Lynn also deplored Cuccinelli’s attempt to downplay the importance of church-state separation in the advisory.
The attorney general, a close ally of the Religious Right, suggested that the First Amendment is only intended to prevent government endorsement of a national religion or preference among sects. He quoted court decisions that diminish Thomas Jefferson’s view that the American people through the First Amendment have built a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Said Lynn, “When it comes to First Amendment analysis, I’ll take Thomas Jefferson’s view over Ken Cuccinelli’s any day. The framers wanted to keep government out of religion entirely; Cuccinelli clearly has the opposite opinion.”
Since assuming the office earlier this year, Cuccinelli has waded into several controversies. He ordered state universities in March to rescind policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, insisting that Virginia law does not offer such protections. In May, he went so far as to redesign the Virginia state seal, which depicts the Roman goddess Virtus with one breast exposed. In Cuccinelli’s version, she was shown in a full breastplate.