Christmas and Chanukah Displays: “Congress Shall Make No Law…”

This image appears in the annual Leesburg Christmas Parade

Every year around this time, the stories begin popping up about certain atheists battling with people of faith over religious holiday displays on public property. They say it’s a question of the Constitutional separation of Church and State. Religious folks say it’s about the free exercise of religion in a Judeo-Christian country. It’s become as much a ritual of the season as Black Friday camp-outs and gingerbread lattes.

It would appear that none of those advocating the removal of public religious imagery have actually read the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Allowing “free exercise” of religion in no way makes a “law respecting an establishment of religion”. In fact, it’s a mandated principle of the First Amendment — that the government stays out of the way of religious expression. No reasonable person can conclude that putting a creche and a Christmas tree and a menorah on public property — representing the major religious traditions of vast majority of Americans — establishes a state religion.

I admit, I struggle to understand atheists who want “equal time” for their “holiday” displays. Atheism is not a religion. The desire to combat the religious beliefs of a majority of Americans through public spectacle is certainly not of interest to many atheists, but those who do take up that fight seem not to see the irony of trying to have their beliefs triumph over those of other Americans. Insofar as they might prevail in forbidding any public religious display from any faith tradition, they are in effect making atheism the state “religion”. Does this double-standard not matter to them?

Locally, this has become a bigger issue over the past decade. In Leesburg, VA, the courthouse lawn has been an increasingly disputed piece of land when it comes to holiday displays. In recent years, atheists have demanded to be represented, posting signs that say things like, “Celebrating the Constitution: Keeping Church and State Separate Since 1787.” Some displays allowed under Loudoun County’s more lenient equal-access policy have become bizarre, even offensive. Last month, The Washington Times reported:

Skeleton Santa Claus hanging from a cross. A painting featuring the manger birth of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. A traditional Nativity scene. The local Jedi wishing that the Force is with our troops.

It must be Christmas in Leesburg, Va. Keeping with the historic town’s new holiday tradition, all of these scenes were erected in the yard in front of the Loudoun County Courthouse last year by community groups hoping to share their own brand of season’s greetings.

Nontraditional and provocative holiday displays have been featured on the yard since 2009, when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors lifted a ban on courthouse displays and allowed community groups “equal access” to the grounds. And while this leaves the door open to anyone to showcase his beliefs, not everyone likes the way that different groups have been decking the grass mall.

New Loudoun County rules have attempted to curtail the more offensive displays by making it harder to maintain one. This year, the board of supervisors added a requirement that each community display have a person physically present with the display at all times.

Rick Wingrove, the Virginia director for American Atheists, criticized this move:

While Mr. Wingrove has participated in courthouse lawn holiday decorations for years, he criticized this year’s Loudoun County-sponsored displays that can stand unattended — a Christmas tree, menorah and Santa with his sleigh — as promotion of specific religious beliefs and a violation of the separation of church and state.

Leesburg District Supervisor Ken Reid was also quoted in the Times piece, and he disagreed in rather forceful terms:

“None of the religious organizations in the county have had any problem with what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s strictly this group of terrorists. They’re fanatics who basically want to stamp out religion in all public life and property.”

Reid’s comments have been highly controversial, and have garnered no small amount of media attention. In an email forwarded to me this morning, Reid indicates that he regrets his choice of words:

I have asked God for forgiveness, have consulted with my rabbi and my friends about my regrettable use of the word “terrorist group” to describe local Loudouners who seek a ban on the creche and other religious symbols from the courthouse lawn.

I never said all nonbelievers are terrorists, but atheist groups and liberal blogs across the nation are accusing me of saying that and one even said I called them “fascists.” A few have said I am part of “The Christian RIght,” because the media failed to note that I am Jewish, but have stood up for Christian and Jewish symbols on the courthouse lawn.

I spoke with Reid, and it was evident that his regret over calling opponents “terrorists” was sincere. Though he wishes he had said things differently, his criticism was directed not at all atheists, but specifically with those activists doing battle over the Leesburg courthouse lawn. He remains concerned that the media attention over his poor word choice — for which he has already apologized — is being used for political purposes, and is a distraction from what people should be focused on during this time of year.

Reid told me, “We’ve had too many years of angst and grief over these displays.” Turning the attention away from his comments and toward the meaning of the holidays taking place this December was the thrust of our conversation. “I want to let this go and make this a positive holiday Season in Leesburg.”

I don’t live in Loudoun County anymore, but I support Ken Reid and the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for allowing traditional religious displays on the Courthouse lawn, as well as their decision to tighten requirements for the types of displays being represented there. If you or people you know live in the area, you can show your support by coming to the public input session which will be held on Tuesday, December 4th at the Loudoun County Government Center Board Room, loacted at 1 Harrison Street S.E., Leesburg, VA 20175. The meeting begins at 5PM, and public input begins as early as 6PM. There is expected to be a large contingent of those opposed to the Board of Supervisor’s actions, and a show of support from people who believe in the free exercise of religion during a time of year centered around some of our holiest observances would be most welcome.

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5 thoughts on “Christmas and Chanukah Displays: “Congress Shall Make No Law…”

  1. abadilla says:

    After so many years of this nonesense going on, I still don’t get it. The Nativity Scene is the very reason for the holy day even though our socierty, and by “our” I mean “all” of Western society, insists it is a time for just decorations, unbridled consumerism, etc.
    If atheists don’t truly believe in God, why are they so threatened by a child in a manger with his mom and dad and an ox and donkey behind it? It makes no sense.
    Here in “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica” (California) a nativity scene was not allowed to be placed in public property but all sorts of decorations and representations were allowed instead. Well, this afternoon I heard that someone donated a private land and the Nativity set will be placed there.
    In catholic churches thoughout the world, we will not see the Nativity set yet because this is Advent, but when Christmas comes, we will see the nativity set in all of our churches to remind us of the mystery of the Incarnation.

  2. swimkin says:

    Atheists should start their own holiday and stop attacking ours.

    1. ajsmit11 says:

      Someone’s uneducated…

      1. Yeah swimkin, it’s April Fool’s Day. ;)

  3. I am surprised we even allow 54 Christmas trees in the White House, if everyone is so against celebrating Crfistian holidays.

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