I did a radio show yesterday with a conservative host on the topic of religious holiday displays. Although we didn’t see eye to eye on the issue, he was polite, and we had a good discussion.

During debates over this issue, it quickly becomes apparent that some misperceptions exist about Americans United’s work in this area. Let’s take a look at a few:

Americans United roams the country looking for holiday displays to attack: Nope, it doesn’t work that way. We respond to inquiries from people in communities. It’s pretty common at this time of year for folks to call, email or write us about holiday displays they’ve seen in their towns. Our attorneys look into these things. If they believe a certain display may be problematic, AU lawyers write to the relevant officials in the community and explain the law in an effort to resolve matters outside of court. A reasonable dialogue is often enough to fix the problem.  

Nativity scene

This display is great for a church lawn, but it's not so good for city hall.

Americans United is making a big deal out of nothing. What’s the problem with some Christmas decorations in a public school or government building?: In many ways, this issue strikes to the heart of separation of church and state. When the government takes the symbols of one faith and displays them, it sends a message that this faith is the favored one, and other adherents are second-class citizens at best. No unit of government should ever send a message like that. By ensuring that the right of all citizens to believe or not is protected, Americans United defends freedom of conscience.

Americans United is a bunch of Grinches who want to spoil the holiday season: That’s not our goal. We’re trying to uphold the Constitution and ensure that everyone’s rights are respected. In our view, the real Grinches are the people who would run roughshod over the rights of others by having the government promote their faith – and only their faith – in public schools and government spaces.

Americans United opposes all religious displays on government property: A religious display on public property may or may not be permissible. A number of factors must be considered: Who put the display there? Are taxpayer funds being used to erect or maintain it? What is the context of the display? Are any secular symbols included?

In some cases, local governments allow private groups to use public land to display symbols, with the private groups paying for the displays and their upkeep. AU does not object to this, as long as all groups, religious and secular, are given the same access to the space. (And yes, that includes groups that some people might consider controversial or unusual. This means someone may put a depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster a few feet from a nativity scene.)

Any issue that invokes symbols will be an emotional one. People on both sides feel strongly. But we are not fated to fight these battles over and over every year. Three years ago, I penned a column for the American Constitution Society in which I proposed a solution to this seasonal tussle: “In December, let a thousand religious flowers bloom. If the government is eager to allow holiday displays on public property, let it allow them all. Otherwise, let it close down these forums and give the job of displaying religious symbols where it has always belonged: in the hands of each individual house of worship. Let each one put up these symbols on its property, with its own dime on its own time.”

There’s a solution if we want it. Happy Holidays!