NA­TIV­ITY IRKS ATHE­ISTS Ex­pec­ta­tions of more re­li­gious dis­plays with Trump in of­fice

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY AN­DREA NOBLE

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad joined Chris­tian lead­ers and res­i­dents at an event re­cently to cel­e­brate the first ever dis­play of a tra­di­tional Na­tiv­ity scene in­side the state Capi­tol in Des Moines.

Five days later, mem­bers of the Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion were on hand to in­stall a sec­u­lar dis­play of their own — a metal cutout fea­tur­ing the Found­ing Fa­thers and the Statue of Lib­erty gaz­ing down at a manger hold­ing the Bill of Rights.

Equal ac­cess to the Capi­tol for non­re­li­gious dis­plays or those cel­e­brat­ing other re­li­gions is what es­tab­lishes the le­gal grounds for this Christ­mas Na­tiv­ity. But in towns across the coun­try, bat­tles rage each holiday sea­son over what sort of re­li­gious dis­plays are al­lowed in pub­lic spa­ces — rang­ing from “A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas” poster in a Texas school to a cross atop an In­di­ana town’s Christ­mas tree.

Pro­po­nents of re­li­gious dis­plays, who have long been ran­kled by at­tempts to push re­li­gion out of the pub­lic sphere, hope Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion will her­ald new en­thu­si­asm for Christ­mas cheer. The pres­i­dent-elect early on promised to bring back use of the greet­ing “Merry Christ­mas,” eschew­ing the re­li­gion-neu­tral phrase “Happy Hol­i­days.”

“What you are go­ing to see in 2017 is an in­crease in both pri­vate and pub­lic dis­plays of Christ­mas,” said Mat Staver, founder and chair­man of Lib­erty Coun­sel, a re­li­gious free­dom non­profit. “In the pres­i­dent’s po­si­tion, he has the na­tional at­ten­tion. When he goes out and says ‘Merry Christ­mas,’ that’s go­ing to have a huge im­pact na­tion­ally. I think you are go­ing to see tan­gi­ble re­sults.”

In the fi­nal holiday sea­son be­fore Mr. Trump as­sumes of­fice, de­bate con­tin­ues over sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, in­clud­ing which types of dis­plays are al­lowed and which cross the line into giv­ing the ap­pear­ance the gov­ern­ment is en­dors­ing or pro­mot­ing a sin­gle re­li­gion over oth­ers.

In Killeen, Texas, a lo­cal judge last week barred mid­dle school of­fi­cials from re­mov­ing a “A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas” dec­o­ra­tion that fea­tured “Peanuts” char­ac­ter Li­nus quot­ing a Bi­ble verse.

Texas law­mak­ers in 2013 adopted the “Merry Christ­mas bill,” which pro­tects dis­plays on pub­lic school prop­erty so long as they in­clude sym­bols from more than one re­li­gion, in­clude at least one sec­u­lar sym­bol, or do not en­cour­age ad­her­ence to any one re­li­gious be­lief. The school’s prin­ci­pal had or­dered only the Bi­ble verse be re­moved from the poster, but Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton took the stance that the verse is al­low­able un­der the law and praised the judge’s de­ci­sion.

“Re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion to­ward Chris­tians has be­come a holiday tra­di­tion of sorts among cer­tain groups,” Mr. Pax­ton said. “I am glad to see that the court broke through the left’s rhetor­i­cal fog and rec­og­nized that a com­mit­ment to di­ver­sity means pro­tect­ing ev­ery­one’s in­di­vid­ual re­li­gious ex­pres­sion.”

Mean­while, in Jo­plin, Mis­souri, res­i­dents of an af­ford­able hous­ing com­plex for se­nior cit­i­zens were told to re­move all re­li­gious sym­bols from a Christ­mas dis­play erected in a com­mon area.

Man­age­ment of Mercy Vil­lage told The Jo­plin Globe that, as a re­cip­i­ent of funds from the U.S. De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment, the hous­ing com­plex would be in vi­o­la­tion of the Fair Hous­ing Act if it al­lowed re­li­gious sym­bols like crosses or Na­tiv­ity scenes. Sec­u­lar dec­o­ra­tions like a Christ­mas tree or Santa Claus are al­lowed, how­ever.

The mixed re­sults haven’t slowed the Thomas More So­ci­ety, a non­profit law firm that seeks to up­hold the free speech rights of re­li­gious groups in pub­lic places and spon­sors the place­ment of Na­tiv­ity scenes at state capi­tols. In ad­di­tion to spon­sor­ing the Na­tiv­ity in Iowa this year, the group con­structed one Sun­day in Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia, mak­ing it the group’s 13th Na­tiv­ity in a state capi­tol.

“The Na­tiv­ity scene at the state Capi­tol rep­re­sents con­sti­tu­tion­al­lypro­tected free speech and ex­pres­sion of re­li­gious faith by pri­vate cit­i­zens in a tra­di­tional pub­lic fo­rum,” said Tom Bre­jcha, the pres­i­dent and chief coun­sel of the group.

Sec­u­lar groups like the Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion (FFRF) pre­fer the re­moval of re­li­gious holiday dis­plays. Wash­ing­ton state law­mak­ers pre­vi­ously banned all non­govern­ment dis­plays in­side the Capi­tol Ro­tunda in Olympia af­ter protests erupted in 2008 over com­pet­ing pri­vate holiday dis­plays, in­clud­ing a plaque from the group that said, in part, re­li­gion is “myth and su­per­sti­tion.”

“It is in­ap­pro­pri­ate to have a sec­tar­ian re­li­gious dis­play in the heart of state gov­ern­ment,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-pres­i­dent. “We’d much pre­fer that the seat of gov­ern­ment be free from re­li­gion — and ir­re­li­gion.”

When groups like FFRF at­tempt to erect non­re­li­gion dis­plays to counter re­li­gious ones, mem­bers say their ac­tions are of­ten mis­in­ter­preted as “a war on Christ­mas.”

“I think it’s a ter­ri­to­rial con­cept and the mis­con­cep­tion about the role of the gov­ern­ment with re­li­gion,” said An­nie Laurie Gay­lor, FFRF co-pres­i­dent. “In De­cem­ber it’s blas­phe­mous if you men­tion there are athe­ists or non­re­li­gious peo­ple around.”

She ex­pects bat­tles over holiday re­li­gious dis­plays to in­ten­sify af­ter Mr. Trump takes of­fice.

“We are go­ing to see an all-out war on sep­a­ra­tion of church and state by Trump’s Cab­i­net,” Ms. Gay­lor said.

Mr. Bre­jcha of the Thomas More So­ci­ety said he hopes that Chris­tians will be able to more openly talk about and cel­e­brate their faith un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“There are el­e­ments that would sec­u­lar­ize the hol­i­days and make it that re­li­gious sym­bols are only con­fined to in­side the four walls of church,” he said.

But he noted that he doesn’t ex­pect or hope that dis­plays cel­e­brat­ing other re­li­gions or sec­u­lar dis­plays will go by the way­side, adding that sup­port for Na­tiv­i­ties and other dis­plays cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas re­mains strong.

“Are we win­ning? Oh, ab­so­lutely,” Mr. Bre­jcha said. “I think peo­ple are com­ing around to re­al­ize that re­li­gious speech is free speech too.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Athe­ists say Na­tiv­i­ties on gov­ern­ment prop­erty are of­fi­cial en­dorse­ments of re­li­gion.

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