Of Courthouses And Creches: The Crucial Difference Between Public And Private Religious Symbols

Private groups should pay for, erect and maintain religious symbols.

One of the Religious Right’s favorite tricks is to do something that pretty much everyone agrees is legal, and then thumb their noses at groups like Americans United when nobody gets in trouble for doing it.

Here’s a recent example: Earlier this week, two groups called Faith in Action and the Christian Defense Coalition brought a living Nativity scene to the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Revs. Rob Schenck and Patrick Mahoney had a camel, a donkey and people posing as Mary, Joseph and the three wise men. (For added realism, Mary was even carrying a four-month-old baby, not a doll.)

Mahoney asserted that people like these kinds of displays but added “[T]he courts and groups like the ACLU and Americans United are mounting an all-out assault on public expressions of faith. So in America, you have this very fascinating situation. The general public is very warm toward public expressions of faith, while the courts and elite groups are very uncomfortable with it.”

Only that’s not what the courts have said, and it’s not what Americans United believes. The sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court is well known as a free-speech zone. Every time I go to the high court I see people there marching around with signs, expressing their point of view.

This includes religious perspectives, because many of the folks who protest there don’t like legal abortion and often hoist signs containing Bible verses. Some even get down on their knees and pray in front of the court.

Americans United does not object to that. What we oppose is the government deciding to adopt a religious point of view and holding that up as the standard for everyone. When the mayor of Anytown puts a Nativity scene up on the town green at taxpayer expense, she is sending the message that Anytown has a preferred religion and here is its symbol. We oppose that. Under the First Amendment, Anytown isn’t allowed to have a preferred religion.

When the Knights of Columbus gets a permit and puts a Nativity scene on the town green that its members paid for and they maintain, there is no problem – as long as every other group in town is given the same right. So a Jewish group can erect a menorah, the atheists can put up a banner supporting reason and the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s adherents can erect a rendering of His Noodlyness. (Don’t laugh. This is exactly what’s going on in Leesburg, Va.)

A CNN report on the display noted that Schenck and Mahoney hope other people follow their example. The story reported that tax-funded religious symbols are problematic and added, “The way around it, say the pastors, is to get a permit and have the funds for the scenes come from private donors.”

Well, duh! That’s what Americans United has been saying for something like 30 years now. I’m glad Schenck and Mahoney have finally caught on.

Look, this isn’t rocket science: Private groups should pay for, erect and maintain religious symbols. If they want to put them on public space, they should get the proper permits. They should respect the right of other groups to do the same. Government should stay out of the theology business and refrain from displaying any sectarian symbols at taxpayer expense.

So, to the Revs. Schenck and Mahoney I can only say: Good luck with your privately funded living Nativity scene that isn’t government supported. That’s my favorite kind. (Just be sure to clean up after that camel.)