Christmas Clash: Religious Right Exploits Battles Over Symbols And Songs

November 27th, 2009
By Rob Boston
Government-Sponsored Religion, In the Courts, Religion in Public Life, Religion in Public Schools, Religious Symbols on Public Property

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and you know what that means. Yes, the malls will be crowded, but this time of year also means an escalation in the battles over how public schools and government deal with Christmas.

Some disputes have already erupted. In Chambersburg, Pa., the borough council voted unanimously to ban most displays from a public square rather than accommodate an atheist who wanted access to the space.

Carl Silverman, who is active with the group PA Nonbelievers, noted that city officials had granted permission to a community organization to erect a nativity scene at Memorial Square. Silverman’s display would have recognized the Solstice and honored non-religious veterans.

But the council rejected Silverman’s message, ordered the crèche removed and has announced that from now on, only flags and flowers will be permitted in the square. Silverman is considering litigation.

“It was not our goal to remove the nativity scene from the public square,” Silverman told the local newspaper, Public Opinion. “Our goal was to add our perspective to the public square and to honor the atheist veterans of the Civil War and other conflicts. It is a war memorial, and we made an effort to make sure that our sign had a connection to it.”

The council’s decision has sparked an all-too typical reaction. The Public Opinion article sparked hundreds of vituperative comments, and Silverman has received threats.

Such behavior is an odd way to honor the season of peace.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court in New Jersey has ruled that a public school cannot be forced to include religious Christmas carols in its holiday pageant.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the Maplewood-South Orange School District has the right to omit religiously-themed music from its holiday concerts.

The controversy dates back to 2004 when parent Michael Stratechuk sued the school. Backed by the right-wing Thomas More Law Center in Michigan, Sratechuk argued that the school’s policy was a violation of the First Amendment.

The court disagreed. It is true that other federal courts have ruled that public schools can include religious music in holiday programs, but officials at this particular school decided they did not want to include such music. They have the right to make that call.

The appeals court made the right decision. The last thing we need is federal courts scrutinizing the holiday programs at public schools and demanding that “O Come All Ye Faithful” be included right after “Frosty the Snowman.” Public schools serve children of many different religious and philosophical backgrounds; their holiday programs should not look (or sound) like something you would experience in a church.

It’s a shame we have these battles every year. Americans would do better to accept the fact that Christmas, for better or worse, has morphed into a holiday with religious and secular aspects. Public schools and government can celebrate the latter but not the former.

I also wish the Religious Right would stop using Christmas as another vehicle to fan the flames of the culture wars. Their “Christmas police,” who relentlessly scan newspaper circulars and visit stores to make sure the proper “religiously correct” greeting is used (“Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays”), are tiresome and silly.

I can understand why some people want a full-bodied, religious Christmas experience with hymns, prayers, nativity scenes and so on. What I can’t understand is why anyone would expect to get that at city hall or a public school.

Want more Christ in Christmas? The logical place to go for that is a church.

P.S. The December issue of Church & State will feature a story by my colleague Sandhya Bathija examining how the Religious Right makes a fuss every year at Christmastime by exploiting controversies like these. It’s an interesting piece and will be online at in just a few days. Check it out.

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