Are school Christ­mas car­ols, plays and na­tiv­i­ties Con­sti­tu­tional?

Westside Eagle-Observer - - NEWS / OPINION - By Harold Pease, Ph.D.

What are my con­sti­tu­tional rights in school with re­spect to Christ­mas? It might sur­prise some to learn that the Con­sti­tu­tion does not al­low the govern­ment to pre­vent you from do­ing in pub­lic — even at school — most things that you do at home. The con­sti­tu­tion­ally ill-in­formed like to re­fer to the “sep­a­ra­tion of church and state” as the ra­tio­nale for a pro­hi­bi­tion of re­li­gious or sea­sonal ex­pres­sion in pub­lic places. No such lan­guage ex­ists in the Con­sti­tu­tion. To pre­vent you from do­ing these things would be as un­con­sti­tu­tional as man­dat­ing that you do them.

Ac­tu­ally, the lan­guage of the First Amend­ment, from which op­po­nents to re­li­gion de­rive this false­hood, is “Congress shall make no law re­spect­ing an es­tab­lish­ment of re­li­gion, or pro­hibit­ing the free ex­er­cise thereof.” Such was in­cluded for the sole pur­pose of pre­vent­ing the govern­ment from cre­at­ing a stateap­proved or­ga­ni­za­tion of re­li­gion as had hap­pened in Europe for more than a thou­sand years. Sim­ply, the govern­ment may not es­tab­lish a state re­li­gion. In­stead, the govern­ment is charged with pro­tect­ing “the free ex­er­cise thereof.”

So dec­o­rate your school Christ­mas trees (not di­ver­sity trees), dis­trib­ute your Christ­mas cards (not hol­i­day cards) with Bi­b­li­cal mes­sages on them to your school­mates, greet your school friends and col­leagues with Merry Christ­mas (not Happy Hol­i­days), sing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” in your school choirs and, for heaven’s sake, do not let your teach­ers or ad­min­is­tra­tors change Christ­mas Break to Win­ter Break or “Sparkle Sea­son.” You have a cul­ture and her­itage to pre­serve, so say the courts. You may even have a na­tiv­ity scene in the class­room or on school grounds, but out­side ac­tiv­i­ties are bet­ter left to par­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Some might say that I am giv­ing you the view and prac­tice of 50 years ago. This is so; but, amaz­ingly, that view re­mains in place con­sti­tu­tion­ally. Whereas the Supreme Court has par­tic­i­pated in con­sti­tu­tional dis­tor­tion in so many other ar­eas in the past, the orig­i­nal view, the “free ex­er­cise” of re­li­gion, still holds. The Court has not ruled on any mea­sure that would si­lence those who cel­e­brate Christ­mas openly and in pub­lic places. If it did so, it might fairly be ac­cused of cre­at­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion of the ir­re­li­gious to de­stroy re­li­gious free­dom.

Yes, you might get a let­ter from the ACLU (or other groups) threat­en­ing your “free ex­er­cise thereof” of re­li­gion, but the Supreme Court has never up­held such a view — in fact, the op­po­site has been es­tab­lished in case af­ter case. Be­cause the ACLU has been suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing the op­po­site pub­lic im­pres­sion, it can bully and blus­ter the ig­no­rant into for­feit­ing their con­sti­tu­tional rights. And this it does.

Should such anti-re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions do more than blus­ter, which is un­likely given their loss ra­tio, de­fend­ing your right to cel­e­brate Christ­mas in the tra­di­tional — even his­tor­i­cal man­ner — is pro­tected by the Con­sti­tu­tion and de­fended by the Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom, which a few years ago sent a let­ter to more than 13,000 school dis­tricts na­tion­wide of­fer­ing its free le­gal as­sis­tance. At­tor­neys all over the coun­try vol­un­teer their ser­vices to pro­tect this part of the Con­sti­tu­tion. Should a stu­dent or fac­ulty mem­ber feel threat­ened by the school’s lead­er­ship, or wish coun­sel on this sub­ject, the Al­liance can be reached at 1-800-835-5233. And, school of­fi­cials and teach­ers are in­vited to visit www.ADFle­gal.org. The Al­liance will be happy to send a let­ter en­cour­ag­ing them to honor your First Amend­ment rights.

Al­liance lit­er­a­ture notes the things that may be done in the pub­lic set­ting. Col­leges may dec­o­rate cam­pus Christ­mas trees. Christ­mas pro­grams may in­clude re­li­gious songs. The courts have rec­og­nized for many years that Christ­mas car­ols have achieved a cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance that jus­ti­fies their be­ing per­formed in pub­lic schools. More­over, teach­ers may con­sti­tu­tion­ally present Christ­mas pas­sages from the Bi­ble when treat­ing the event in the his­tor­i­cal sense. The First Amend­ment does pro­tect the right of in­di­vid­u­als to pri­vate re­li­gious ex­pres­sion on pub­lic prop­erty — even na­tiv­ity scenes. Even show­ing paint­ings of Je­sus Christ in pub­lic parks is con­sti­tu­tional.

May the govern­ment spon­sor re­li­gious dis­plays in­side govern­ment build­ings? Of course! How could the Supreme Court rule oth­er­wise? Moses with the Ten Com­mand­ments is chis­eled in stone on their build­ings. Prayer is held ev­ery work­ing morn­ing in both the House and Se­nate cham­bers, and each body ded­i­cates a room for quiet med­i­ta­tion and prayer for leg­is­la­tors.

As this is writ­ten, the Al­liance is de­fend­ing an el­derly woman in Che­halis, Wash., se­nior liv­ing com­plex called Prov­i­dence Place. She and her neigh­bors have been banned by the man­agers of the com­plex from “say­ing ‘Merry Christ­mas,’ singing re­li­gious Christ­mas car­ols, or dis­play­ing any re­li­gious Christ­mas items in its com­mon ar­eas, in­clud­ing on the door­posts of the build­ing’s apart­ments.” Man­age­ment wrongly “claims that it can­not al­low any res­i­dent to engage in re­li­gious ex­pres­sion be­cause it ac­cepts funds from the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment.”

Some school ad­min­is­tra­tors share the fal­lacy that re­ceiv­ing govern­ment fund­ing, which they do, in­hibits this free­dom. Not so!

So, Lib­erty Un­der Fire en­cour­ages read­ers to not give way on their First Amend­ment right of free­dom of re­li­gion. How else will it be main­tained? But we lose this free­dom to the ex­tent that we do not de­fend it. If not you, then who? If not now, then when? Do­ing noth­ing only ex­ac­er­bates the prob­lem and en­cour­ages op­po­nents to blus­ter and in­tim­i­date all the more.

Merry Christ­mas, my lib­erty lov­ing friends!

Harold W. Pease, Ph.D., is a syn­di­cated colum­nist and an ex­pert on the United States Con­sti­tu­tion. He has ded­i­cated his ca­reer to study­ing the writ­ings of the Found­ing Fa­thers and ap­ply­ing that knowl­edge to cur­rent events. He taught his­tory and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence from this perspective for more than 30 years at Taft Col­lege. To read more of his weekly ar­ti­cles, visit www. Lib­er­tyUn­derFire.org.

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