Public officials should avoid using the holiday season to promote one religion over others, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Because of pressure from Religious Right groups and their allies, some communities nationwide are displaying religious symbols improperly at government buildings and other public property.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said that government officials can recognize the holiday season without trampling the U.S. Constitution.
“Christmas and the Constitution can easily co-exist,” Lynn said. “We are simply urging government officials to follow the law, which bars government from promoting one religious faith over others.
“If officials decide to put up holiday decorations at Christmas, they must do so in a way that does not give government support to Christianity,” he continued. “America is an incredibly diverse nation, and government should never send the message that one faith is the officially preferred one.”
Lynn noted, “The federal courts have held that nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus may not be displayed on public property in a way that appears to give government approval to Christianity. What is so complicated about that?”
Americans United has received complaints from coast to coast regarding displays on government property that are clearly more suited for a house of worship than city hall.
For example, Macon County, N.C., officials have featured on their county courthouse lawn a large, illuminated nativity scene. No other holiday decorations accompany the display.
In a Dec. 6 letter to county commissioners, Americans United urged that the religious display be removed or that secular items be added. Citing federal court precedent, Americans United noted that it is “impermissible to erect a display in which religious elements predominate or that otherwise communicates a message of governmental endorsement of religion.”
Americans United has also urged other localities to correct or remove their religiously themed holiday displays.
Those incidents include:
- Webster, Mass., officials own and display a nativity scene on public property near town hall. Americans United has urged city officials to remove the display.
- Exmore, Va., owns and displays a nativity scene on public property at an intersection of Lincoln and Main Streets. The city also illuminates the religious symbol in the evenings. Americans United has called on the city to remove the display.
- Dallas, Ga., displays a crxe8che in a city triangle two blocks from city hall and across the street from First Baptist Church. “Given the size, visibility, and isolation of the crxe8che, and the fact that the crxe8che is both owned and erected by the city,” many citizens will view the display as city endorsement of a religion, Americans United wrote to Dallas officials, urging them to stop using city resources to promote religion.
- Menominee, Mich., has in the past erected a nativity scene alone in a public park. Americans United advised city officials that they may “display a religious symbol only when it appears among other items that, together, communicate a secular message.”
- DeFuniak Springs, Fla., has displayed an illuminated crxe8che on the courthouse lawn. Responding to complaints, Americans United wrote to the county officials urging them to avoid erecting an unconstitutional display this year.
- Olean, N.Y., has allowed a private group to install a nativity scene in front of the Olean Municipal Building. Americans United urged the city council to remove the constitutionally suspect religious display.
- Columbiana, Ala., ordered city workers to install a city-owned nativity scene on public property in early December. Americans United has warned city officials that the display is unconstitutional.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.