One of the truly hot-button issues involving a Christian presence on government property concerns Christmas celebrations and displays. Ditsy Carmen Suarez, a resident of Miami-Dade County, Florida, noticed during the 2002 Christmas season a prominent holiday display at the Miami-Dade County Permit and Inspection Center when she entered the building. She was surprised to discover that, while a Jewish symbol and one celebrating Kwanzaa were on display, Christian symbols were conspicuously absent. This omission concerned Suarez, so she asked the employee at the information desk why a nativity scene was excluded. He demurred, saying he'd been asked that same question a number of times, but didn't know the answer.
Suarez called the county communications department, where an employee informed her that the nativity scene was disallowed because it was religious in nature and only non-religious seasonal symbols were permitted. The director of the Permit and Inspection Center confirmed the policy and added that private individuals had donated the Jewish and Kwanzaa symbols. Suarez then offered to provide a nativity display at her own expense, but her offer was rejected. According to the director, the county attorney said that a Christmas display would violate the "separation of church and state."
Suarez was understandably perplexed at the singling out of Christian symbols for exclusion on church/state grounds, especially since at least one of the other symbols permitted was religious in nature. When the American Family Association (AFA) Center for Law and Policy threatened to seek a federal temporary restraining order, the Inspection Center permitted Suarez to place her display alongside the existing ones. "This is yet another case in which ignorance of the law created irrational fear of violation of the separation of church and state," said Mike DePrimo, AFA's senior litigation counsel. "If government officials were even remotely as solicitous of the rights of Christians as they are of other groups," said AFA chief counsel Stephen M. Crampton, "we would all enjoy greater freedom."
In Wildwood, Florida, the city council voted to place two angel decorations on the front lawn of City Hall over the objections (and legal threats) of the American Atheists, who had written a complaining letter to Mayor Ed Wolf about the display. In his letter, American Atheists Florida director Greg McDowell said, "Last year, while driving through Wildwood, I noticed that along with other ornamental displays, your beautiful, new City Hall had angels outside on the lawn. Angels are without question a religious symbol, and must be omitted this year and in the future What we want is absolute separation of religion and government." Mayor Wolf expressed dismay that the scene caused such uproar, because "there was no intent to make [the decorations] religious." Moreover, "it is not a manger scene, but little wire frames of angels and deer with clear Christmas lights probably purchased from Wal-Mart." Ron Barrier, spokesman for American Atheists, disagreed, saying, "Angels are a concept of Christianity," and besides, "churches and temples own plenty of land to display all the decorations they want."
It just gets crazier. A New Jersey public school banned the classic Charles Dickens play A
Christmas Carol because of its spiritual overtones and redemptive message. The city council of Kensington, Maryland, removed Santa Claus from its traditional tree-lighting ceremony simply because a few families said the jolly fellow would make them uncomfortable. After complaints, the council changed Santa's status from "disinvited" to "uninvited."" And ever watchful officials of St. Paul, Minnesota, ordered that a few red poinsettias be removed from the decorative holiday display at the Ramsey County Courthouse, which houses the city hall, because the particular flowers could be associated with Christmas and might offend certain people. Vehement complaints led to a fallback position: The city agreed to allow white poinsettias, but not red ones. City fathers of Pittsburgh coined "Sparkle Season" to enable city residents to skirt the controversy that would surely ensue if they used the word "Christmas." Ron Sims, county executive of King County, Washington, directed his employees not to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" at work." The Wisconsin Department of Administration invited people to place handmade ornaments on the state's "holiday tree"-yes, "holiday tree"-and left the ornament guidelines in the hands of state bureaucrats. Lo and behold, the bureaucrats decreed that the ornaments should not be religious in nature.
In Covington, Georgia, the ACLU filed suit against a public school district because its calendar designated December 25 as Christmas, which is unconstitutionally "advancing religion," as opposed to just recognizing the commonly known fact. The ACLU also filed an action against a Pittsburgh public parking lot that set aside a number of parking spaces near a Roman Catholic Church that was housing a nativity scene, to allow travelers to view the display. The ACLU's opposition to this courtesy prompted criticism from Rabbi Aryeh Spero, president of Caucus for America. "The ACLU's insistence here that common courtesy and accommodation be forbidden," wrote Spero, "bespeaks a civic mean-spiritedness, a narrow and smallminded approach to law, and reflects the insecurity and stinginess of certain ACLU-niks choosing not to share a majority-held celebration, i.e., If I don't have Christmas, neither can you. Obviously, the ACLU is animated by hostility to Christianity in the context of American public life."
The City Council of Little Rock, Arkansas, changed the name of its annual December parade from the "Christmas Parade" to the "Holiday Parade," in order not to offend non-religious people or those of other faiths. As one writer quipped, "I can't wait until they find out the word 'holiday' actually means 'holy day.' What to do then?" The Freedom from Religion Foundation placed an atheistic message in the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda alongside holiday displays. After the sign was vandalized, the group re-erected it. The sign read, "At this season of the winter solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds. Note that the high priests of tolerance and diversity did not come out in force condemning that message or its inarguably offensive content.
The state of Oregon has gotten a taste for this growing aversion to Christmas. The city of Eugene, in December 2000, banned Christmas trees from public places. Why? Well, according to the five-page single-spaced memo from City Manager Jim Johnson to all city employees, the fact that Christmas trees are in some cases "associated with a religious holiday or tradition" is sufficient reason to purge them. Adding insult to injury, Johnson said he was issuing the order in the name of diversity. There you have it: Diversity means tolerance for every religion except Christianity. After some firemen objected, Johnson agreed to allow the trees on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on the explicit condition that he not receive a single complaint about it.
City officials of the coastal community of Tillamook, Oregon-a city famous in the Northwest for its cheese and ice cream-required a private business, High Tide Espresso Drive-Thru, to remove a lighted nativity scene from the drive-through coffee kiosk it rents from the city. Cheryl Hall, the proprietor, installed the scene to honor her infant grandson, who had died earlier in the year. "It appeared to be a conflict between church and state;' said City Manager Mark Gervasi. Some conflict! Only one citizen reportedly complained, but that's all it took for the city to remove the display the very next day.
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