’Tis the season … for Americans United to field reports that some local government officials are displaying religious symbols on public property. These government-sponsored holiday displays violate religious freedom by signaling to residents that the government endorses a specific faith – and that people who don’t believe in that faith may not be welcome or have an equal voice in their own community.
Thankfully, one town in eastern Pennsylvania took steps this year to make its public spaces more welcoming to all. Emmaus, a town of about 12,000 people south of Allentown, agreed to remove a Christian nativity scene from the lawn of its publicly owned library. The removal came after Americans United received a local complaint last December and sent Emmaus a letter requesting the library stop displaying the religious scene.
The display didn’t go far – it was moved a couple blocks down Main Street to the Emmaus Moravian Church. It’s a perfect solution – AU is pleased the government is no longer promoting religion, and those in town who appreciate the nativity scene can still see it prominently displayed in an appropriate, privately owned space.
“We’re happy to have a place to put it,” church secretary Melissa Heckman told The Morning Call in Allentown. “It looks great.”
Not everyone in town is happy about the change, particularly those who would like to see their religion promoted by government. “Why can’t people just leave things alone?” one resident told the paper. “Christmas is a short period of time, and when it’s over, the nativity will be put back in storage. But Jesus Christ will still be here loving us all. Even the ones that want to separate church and state.”
It’s a hair-trigger, defensive response that’s common from some people when they learn they’ve been unintentionally hurting others by ignoring their beliefs or by helping to ensure a majority faith monopolizes the public square.
Religious diversity continues to increase in America; nearly a third of Americans are non-Christians. Nonetheless, it’s hard to escape the omnipresence of Christmas this time of year – or the claims of a “War on Christmas” shouted at anyone who tries to lift up a different viewpoint. That’s why Americans United released this seasonal video this week, encouraging everyone to unite around our shared values, including religious freedom.
It’s appropriate that Emmaus should offer an example of a place that respects church-state separation and religious freedom for all: It was founded in the 1700s by the Moravians, a Christian denomination that flourished in Pennsylvania after encountering religious persecution in Europe and elsewhere in the American colonies.
Emmaus’ surrounding county hasn’t been as receptive to recognizing religious pluralism in modern times: Lehigh County continues to fight calls by Americans United, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other groups to remove a Christian cross from the county’s official seal and flag. A federal judge ruled the cross is unconstitutional, but the county has appealed.
Wouldn’t it be great if Lehigh County followed Emmaus’ example and stopped using a religious symbol to represent a secular county government? That would be a welcome gift for people of all beliefs this season.
(Photo: The nativity scene that was moved from Emmaus' public library to Emmaus Moravian Church. Credit: Emmaus Moravian Church's Facebook page.)