How The Religious Right Stole Christmas

Sectarian Grinches And Persnickety Pundits Have Turned The Season Of Peace Into A Festival Of Carping

Last holiday season, Bill O’Reilly was fuming a little bit more than usual.

The bombastic Fox News host declared that Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire had “insulted Christians all over the world” when she “allowed” a Winter Solstice display to stand next to a Christmas tree and a Nativity scene in the state’s capitol building.

But what O’Reilly failed to acknowledge in his op-ed for The Washington Times was that Gregoire was just doing her job. She was enforcing a court order that stemmed from a case between the state and O’Reilly’s friends at the Alliance Defense Fund.

The ADF, a Religious Right group, had represented a local man who wanted to erect a Nativity scene in the state capitol rotunda, forcing the state in 2007 to broaden its policy on displays.

That meant that when the next holiday season rolled around, the capitol rotunda had to be open to an atheist sign that stated, “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Even if he was aware of those facts, O’Reilly’s rant came as little surprise.

Every year during the holiday season, right-wing pundits and Religious Right groups rally their followers by claiming there is a “war on Christmas.” These groups are outraged annually by holiday displays, parades, music and anything else that has to do with the December holiday – unless a large dollop of Christianity is included.

Last year, it got so bad in Olympia that protestors began gathering outside the Capitol demanding that the Solstice sign come down. The demonstrators attacked Gregoire, carrying signs that portrayed her as the Grinch.

The Rev. Ken Hutcherson, a Religious Right leader in the community, announced at the protest that the governor had “led the state of Washington to be the armpit of America. And I’m afraid that our governor is the one adding the offensive odor to the armpit.”

After last year’s debacle over religious symbols in the capitol rotunda, state officials have issued new permanent rules barring all nongovernment displays inside the Capitol campus building.

The Washington Department of General Administration signed off on the policy after listening to testimony at hearings in September. Dennis Mansker, Americans United’s South Sound Chapter president, supported the proposed changes and provided suggestions for how the state should handle temporary displays on Capitol grounds.

“We do not need a repeat of last year’s holiday display embarrassment,” he said. “Though we support free speech, we all learned the potential hazards of an open public forum. Our Capitol building should be used to carry out the people’s business, which includes allowing people to petition their lawmakers. But space is limited, thus a prohibition on unattended displays makes perfect sense.”

Despite the ban on displays inside the Capitol rotunda, the new policy still allows religious displays outside the Capitol campus buildings, which could move last year’s dispute to the outdoors, Mansker said.

“As far as the new rule goes, I think it hasn’t really solved anything,” he said. “Now there will be Nativity scenes outside the Capitol building, which I think makes the problem worse. Outdoor displays are by their nature more visible and therefore much more likely to give the impression that the state is supporting religion.”

Situations like this are not isolated. As early as October this year, a Michigan resident claimed religious persecution because the government would not permit him to erect a stand-alone Nativity scene on public land.

John Satawa claims he has placed the crèche on the median of a public road in Warren, Mich., for decades. Last year, Warren’s road commission rejected the Nativity scene because Satawa had not requested a permit. This year, when he asked ahead of time, he was officially turned down because the tableau “clearly displays a religious message” and would violate the First Amendment.

Satawa, represented by the Religious Right’s Thomas More Law Center, filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision.

“Every Christmas holiday,” said Richard Thompson, Center president and chief counsel, “militant atheists, acting like the Taliban, use the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ – nowhere found in our Constitution – as a means of intimidating municipalities and schools into removing expressions celebrating Christmas, a national holiday.

“Their goal is to cleanse our public square of all Christian symbols,” he continued. “However, the grand purpose of our Founding Fathers and the First Amendment was to protect religion, not eliminate it.”

Over the years, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged government officials to remember the Constitution when dealing with holiday displays. AU’s legal department has sent letters to numerous city and county overnments advising them on the law regarding crèches on public land.

Expert advice about Nativity scenes is important because the law governing such displays is far from straightforward thanks to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions: Lynch v. Donnelly and City of Allegheny v. ACLU.

The 1984 Lynch case involved Pawtucket, R.I., which erected a Christmas display in a park. It included a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, some cut-out shapes of a clown, elephant and teddy bear, colored lights and a large banner that read “Seasons Greetings.” The city also included a depiction of the birth of Jesus within this display.

City residents and the local ACLU filed a lawsuit to challenge the inclusion of the crèche, which consisted of the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men and animals. The high court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the Nativity scene as constitutional. Because the display was accompanied by other secular holiday symbols, the court majority reasoned, it did not constitute a government endorsement of religion.

Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the court, said the city had “principally taken note of a significant historical religious event long celebrated in the Western World. The crèche in the display depicts the historical origins of this traditional event long recognized as a National holiday.”

The Burger court’s decision was praised by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who said, “This ruling portends good things for the future.”

Falwell’s then lieutenant, Cal Thomas, echoed that sentiment, claiming the high court had removed “religious Americans from second-class citizenship.”

Civil liberties groups were disappointed but received some better news five years later in the Allegheny decision. For the first time the high court stated definitively that religious symbols standing alone at public buildings violate church-state separation.

The court considered two religious displays: a freestanding Nativity scene on the steps of a Pennsylvania courthouse and an 18-foot menorah outside the nearby city-county building, which was part of a display that included secular holiday symbols, such as a 45-foot Christmas tree.

The justices upheld the menorah. Writing for the court, Justice Harry A. Blackmun said, “The necessary result of placing a menorah next to a Christmas tree is to create an ‘overall holiday setting’ that represents both Christmas and Chanukah – two holidays, not one.” (See “When Symbols Clash,” September 1989 Church & State.)

But the crèche standing alone took things too far, Blackmun held.

“There is no doubt, of course, that the crèche itself is capable of communicating a religious message,” he wrote. “Unlike in Lynch, nothing in the context of the display detracts from the crèche’s religious message.

Lynch teaches that government may celebrate Christmas in some manner and form, but not in a way that endorses Christian doctrine,” he continued. “Here, Allegheny County has transgressed this line. It has chosen to celebrate Christmas in a way that has the effect of endorsing a patently Christian message: Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.”

These leading Supreme Court rulings have led to confusion about whether a Nativity scene can stand on public land.

That’s why almost every year, disputes over crèches are inevitable.

But it doesn’t just stop with religious symbols. Religious Right groups find any means possible to stir up controversy over Christmas, trying to push “Christian nation” propaganda and arguing that civil liberties groups are censoring religious speech.

Catholic League President Bill Donohue issued a press release on Nov. 3 of this year headlined “War on Christmas Commences.” In the release, he cited several instances, not just those regarding crèche displays, showcasing how “cultural fascists” have tried to ruin Christmas 2009.

One of those instances involved a tree on the Capitol lawn in Frankfort, Ky. Gov. Steve Beshear initially dubbed a giant evergreen there as a “holiday tree,” instead of a Christmas tree, angering some Christians in the state.

The Rev. Jeff Fugate of Lexington said changing the tree’s name offends Christians, and Republican Senate President David Williams said the governor was putting political correctness above Kentucky values.

In response to Religious Right criticism, the governor issued a statement inviting people to a “Christmas tree” lighting ceremony. A spokeswoman said Beshear always meant for it to be a “Christmas tree.”

A similar dispute over a parade in Amelia, Ohio, has also angered Religious Right activists this holiday season. For 28 years, the Amelia Business Association had sponsored the parade, but this year, the organization wanted to hand over that responsibility to the village government.

Village Solicitor Laura Abrams said that since the parade was being put on with government funds, it could no longer be called a Christmas parade and changed the name to “A Holiday Parade.”

Churches told the village they would boycott the parade because of the name change and some people threatened to hold demonstrations. A local township even said it would not participate in the parade and would close a portion of the parade route that ran through the township.

“Understandably,” said Donohue, “this dishonest scheme created a furor, the result being – just to play it safe – there will be no parade.”

In the past, this anger over “censoring Christmas” has led to massive fundraising campaigns for right-wing organizations. In years past, the Alliance Defense Fund sold “Christmas Packs” for $29 apiece, each consisting of a three-page legal memo and two lapel pins.

Liberty Counsel, an adjunct of the late Jerry Falwell’s empire, and the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association provided a “Help Save Christmas Action Pack,” selling buttons that say, “I ♥ Christmas.” The buttons are available again this year through the group’s Web site.

Liberty Counsel, now headed by Liberty University Law School Dean Mat Staver, has also put together a “Naughty and Nice” list of retailers, based on the language stores use in their holiday marketing materials. The group recommends boycotts against stores that use “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

After so many years, it comes as no surprise that every November, there is bound to be a new tactic put forth by the Religious Right to “save” Christmas. A California woman has come up with the latest.

Merry Susan Hyatt, a 61-year-old substitute teacher, has proposed a California ballot initiative that would require public schools to offer religious carols at Christmas. The measure states, “Each public elementary and secondary school shall provide opportunities to its pupils of listening to or performing Christmas music at an appropriate time of year.”

Hyatt said she was shocked by a holiday celebration at a school where she was a substitute.

“We were having Christmas without Jesus,” she told New America Foundation, describing her surprise that a school can prohibit the singing of religiously themed music at school performances, including winter recitals.

Hyatt said she isn’t much concerned about people of other faiths who may take offense at the Christian music. As a substitute teacher, Hyatt said she primarily works in heavily Latino, largely Christian neighborhoods in Southern California.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a Jewish child in one of my classes,” she told The New York Times. “If so, they never said anything.”

Hyatt will need 434,000 valid signatures by March 29 to put the initiative on the November 2010 ballot – meaning, the Religious Right has a new project to play up.

In the meantime, these groups are sure to keep fighting for unconstitutional religious displays on public land, as well as complaining about the use of the word “holiday” instead of “Christmas,” among other grievances.

In response, AU will continue to keep church and state separate during the holiday season, just as it does throughout the year.

“Christmas and the Constitution can easily co-exist,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “We are simply urging government officials to follow the law, which bars government from promoting one religious faith over others.

“If officials decide to put up holiday decorations at Christmas,” he continued, “they must do so in a way that does not give government support to Christianity. America is an incredibly diverse nation, and government should never send the message that one faith is the officially preferred one.”