With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, we’re racing full throttle toward Christmas. Tree lots and holiday lights have already sprung up in my neighborhood. (How much time did you spend shopping online yesterday? Be honest.)
For those who celebrate the holiday, it’s a festive time of year, marked with twinkling lights, decorated trees, greeting cards, rich food, gifts and social events with family and friends. For many, it’s also a time of religious devotion, attending services at their chosen house of worship. It’s supposed to be a time of goodwill and good cheer.
That’s the ideal, but every year people in some communities make a mockery of a season dedicated to peace by getting into fights over religious symbols, such as Nativity scenes, on government property.
Some people, it seems, aren’t happy to celebrate Christmas on their own. They want to bring everybody into the celebration by insisting that government endorse the holiday and its religious symbols.
This is a problem because many people are adamant that government has no business erecting religious symbols, be they crèches, crosses, menorahs or Buddhist prayer wheels. When the government displays one symbol on public property, it elevates that religion over others and sends the message that the municipality in question has a favored faith. Under the First Amendment, no branch of government can send that message.
There are ways to do this right, and I’m pleased to report that folks in Meriden, Conn., have figured it out.
The town’s Nativity scene is something of a tradition; it has been displayed in the community for 70 years. It used to be erected in front of city hall, but, as the Meriden Record-Journal notes, in the 1970s church-state objections were raised, and the crèche was moved to the First United Methodist Church.
The church now hosts the annual unveiling of the Nativity scene. The event is open to the public. Town residents can attend or not as they see fit. A spirit of ecumenism marks the day, with clergy from other Christian churches taking part.
Because the event takes place at a church, it can be as religious as the organizers want. Sunday’s ceremony included prayers, readings from the Bible and hymns.
Not only is this solution constitutional, it just makes sense. Sacred symbols belong in sacred spaces. They look out of place in government buildings.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn stated it well in his book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom. Lynn, himself a Christian minister, wrote, “A Nativity scene, no matter how well crafted or how well maintained, looks out of place and jarring on the cold marble steps of a government building. Placed on the lawn of a church, nestled among holiday greenery with a towering steeple in the background, it looks perfect. Why would want to put it anywhere else?”
In Meriden, the First United Methodist Church happens to be right across the street from city hall. People who are downtown shopping or taking care of municipal business can check out the crèche if they like or ignore it if they’d rather. When it was in front of city hall, people didn’t have that choice.
Moving the crèche to church property respects individual rights and religious liberty. It also defuses a potential “culture war” and heads off a divisive courtroom battle. It’s a solution much in accord with the spirit of the holiday.