This year we are once more in a public debate with the politically correct crowd over the word Christmas and related religious expression. Most of us are filled with joy at this time of year and want to celebrate by saying merry Christmas, singing carols, wearing clothing displaying a Christmas message and with a community Christmas tree or nativity display. It seems that many are reacting to the pressure by removing Christmas and religious displays from our view.
We have no need to fear because it is legally okay to say Merry Christmas. It seems that misunderstandings over the origin and meaning of the phrase “separation of church and state” have encouraged a few to embark on a mission to remove all references to religion from schools, government buildings, public property and even attempt to change the public lexicon.
The phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. It originated in 1802 in a private letter from Thomas Jefferson to a group of Baptist ministers in Danbury, Connecticut – 13 years after the First Amendment was passed. Courts have consistently ruled since then that eliminating all signs of religion from the public square is just as unconstitutional as establishing a religion.
In response to recent efforts to censor Christmas in our country, it might help to clarify the forms of religious expression that are legal under the Constitution in case law.
1. Students are free to express their religious beliefs in school. As long as it’s not materially disruptive, students may express their beliefs verbally with phrases such as “Merry Christmas”; through clothing that conveys religious messages with words, colors, or symbols; or through written materials like school assignments, religious cards, gifts, or tracts given to teachers and classmates (Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 ; Westfield High School L .I. F. E. Club v. City of Westfield, 249 F. Supp.2d 98 [D. Mass. 2003].
2. At school, students can sing Christmas carols at concerts, teach the biblical origins of Christmas, and perform the Christmas story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds. The Constitution does not require the exclusion of religion from public institutions. Christmas is part of our heritage and ingrained in our culture; therefore, expression of it through art and music and teaching of it as history serve both a religious and secular purpose. Provided these activities promote the “advancement of the students’ knowledge of our society’s cultural and religious heritage; an opportunity for students to perform a full range of music, poetry, and drama that is likely to be of interest to the students and their audience,” any of these activities can be conducted in public schools without creating an Establishment Clause problem (Flory v. Sioux Falls School District, 619 F. 2d 1311 [6th Cir. 1980]; Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S.39 .
3. Nativity displays can be placed in schools, parks, and government buildings. No Supreme Court decision has ever forbidden a private citizen from setting up a nativity display in a public park, as parks, streets, and sidewalks are all public forums traditionally devoted to “assembly and debate.” Such displays may also be placed in public buildings provided the government has opened the property for expressive activity. The Free Exercise Clause assures religious speakers the same access to public forums given to secular speakers (Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. City of Grand Rapids, 980 F. 2d1538 . Nor can private citizens be forced to include objects such as snowmen in their faith-based displays (West Virginia v. Burnette, 319 U. S. 624, .
Furthermore, even under current decisions, city governments may include a nativity in a seasonal display provided 1) there are a sufficient number of secular objects along with religious ones, 2) the secular objects are in a close proximity to the religious ones, and 3) overall, the display is sufficiently secular (Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668,671 .
The U. S. Constitution, laws and court decisions are all constructed to protect and permit religious expression in both public schools and government buildings. Attempts to remove Christ from Christmas do not stem from the Constitution, but from those who simply seek to silence the Christian message. That very act is a violation of the Constitution.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article and for this opportunity to clarify the legal position on keeping Christmas and many other forms of religious expression a vital part of our community.
Merry Christmas and my best wishes for a joyous New Year.
57th District, Tennessee