“War on Christmas” gets an early start this year

Back in 2005, the School Board’s Legislative and Policy Committee was meeting regularly to discuss how they could rewrite freedom of expression policy, at the behest of Dick Black, without violating federal law. After one memorable meeting during which some inadvisable confessions were made, I titled my report “It was late and they were tired.

Alas, last week’s discussion of holiday displays by the new Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee (CGFC) took place at only 6:00 pm.

To briefly recap, the new board has abandoned the idea of a limited public forum. This is because – as I predicted – those like Eugene Delgaudio, who claimed to support freedom of expression for all, in reality did not like anyone’s expression but their own and demanded that the displays end. The board is now pursuing the idea of a county-sponsored holiday display on the courthouse lawn, and the CGFC has been tasked with designing it. Further, the CGFC has been reconstituted and is now stacked with individuals who were active in writing letters and speaking to the last board in favor of allowing the display of religious symbols and messages, but prohibiting the display of other symbols and messages.

One of those individuals is John Mileo, who had a design proposal for the rest of the committee. But first, he had to explain his reasoning.

For some inexplicable reason, the Christmas holiday…has evolved into a season that many feel the need to be viewed as inclusionary to people of all faiths and cultures and beliefs.

Christmas is a federal holiday. Let me emphasize that: It’s a federal holiday.

Of all the holidays…Christmas appears to be the only one where a call for inclusion occurs.

Um. Maybe that’s because it’s a federal holiday? We’ll have to get back to that.

My recommendation for the December, 2012 courthouse displays is as follows: In order to [inaudible] that Christmas Day is the only holiday occurring in the month of December, or during the so-called holiday season, that has officially been established as a federal holiday, which is also celebrated by our state and county, I hereby propose that this committee recommend to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors…that the 2012 county-sponsored displays set up on the grounds of the Loudoun County courthouse be limited to only those that pay homage to Christmas. Taking this position the county should be able to defend itself against any [inaudible] or public outcry about it not entertaining displays that represent other holidays that occur during December, which are not recognized by the government. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would surely open the floodgates to inclusion of the type of offensive displays that have been displayed here in the past.

Got that? He goes on to specify that the county-sponsored display he proposes should have the following elements:

A crèche or nativity scene, inclusive of the Baby Jesus in a manger, the Virgin Mother and Father Joseph on either side, plus three farm animals, perhaps two sheep and an ox.

Six foot [inaudible, but I believe was a description of a Santa figure].

Ten to twelve foot Christmas tree adorned with secular ornaments.

Wreaths placed on wrought iron fence…approximately every ten feet.

And this howler, included as an “option”:

A small sign placed adjacent to the crèche, asserting that this display in no way is to be construed as an endorsement of any particular religious belief.

There were two other similar proposals. The remainder of the meeting was a discussion of what elements other than a crèche are absolutely necessary in order to get away with displaying a crèche, and whether Mileo is correct in his view that it’s not necessary, and could be dangerous, to include a menorah. “If a menorah is allowed,” he warned during this discussion, “where do you draw the line?” The committee members broke into two distinct camps, pro- and anti-menorah, but at no point was the debate framed as anything but whether a menorah had to be included along with Santa and/or Frosty the Snowman to provide “top cover” (yes, one member actually used that term to describe what they were attempting to do).

In the course of trying to figure this all out there was some very detailed discussion of what would make the crèche seem “too religious.” Apparently if the crèche is “really lit up” with the addition of angels and Latin inscriptions, it could be a problem (unlike those well known secular symbols, the Baby Jesus and Virgin Mary. But I digress).

Here’s a prediction: Ken Reid will swoop in (remember how he named himself “the Jew who saved Christmas”?) to save the day by insisting that there be a menorah. That will comprise the board’s “inclusion” pole. The current discussion may even have been planned in advance to set up that outcome.

There is so much more – for example, a lawsuit is a near certainty if religious content is sponsored, and will cost the county two million dollars (watch Rick Wingrove address the committee) – but that will have to wait for another day. For now, Mileo and others have concluded that because Christmas is a federal, state and county holiday, that means it’s permissible for the county to sponsor a display that is exclusive to Christmas symbols and messages, including overtly religious ones. It seems to me that they should have come to the exact opposite conclusion.

  1. Is Christmas recognized as a federal holiday? Yes.
  2. Is the federal government constitutionally prohibited from endorsing or establishing as “official” any religious belief? Yes.
  3. Does the recognition of Christmas as a federal holiday constitute a violation of 2) above? I don’t think so, do you?

Then the only possible conclusion is that the elements of Christmas that government is endorsing by recognizing it as a federal holiday are, by definition, secular. This includes the element called “shallow consumerism” that is criticized by many people of faith and of no faith alike, but it also includes the shared experience of celebrating a holiday associated with family, community and good will toward all. That’s why there would be very little objection to a county-sponsored holiday display that is truly secular. There are people on either side with extreme views: That there should be absolutely no displays at all, or that there must be overtly religious content included. I am not saying that these views are not valid, only that I think there needs to be compromise.

There is a third way that allows “people of all faiths and cultures and beliefs,” if they so choose, to celebrate Christmas as an inclusive community. After all, it’s a federal holiday.

Previous posts on holiday cheer:

Holiday display solution moves forward
Ken Reid decides to invite lawsuits
“A brave stand”
Occupy Chanukah and Christmas
Leesburg courthouse, December 2011 (photo album)
Does this look like hate speech to you?
How to ruin a ‘positive statement of belief’
Ken Reid justifies mob rule
Once More, With Feeling
Eugene Delgaudio’s pants are on fire, again
I hate to say I told you so, but…
Get the Popcorn
Needed in the boardroom: A little reason
Judges Offer Opinion
Debates, Distractions and Religious Freedom
‘Tis the season for cheap political grandstanding
Solving the holiday display impasse

19 thoughts on ““War on Christmas” gets an early start this year

  1. Pingback: Baby wants a creche! – Loudoun Progress

  2. Loudoun's Soul

    Oh…Dear…God (or Goddess or Reason or who/whatever one might call upon to express great distress or speech-freezing disbelief). Have the inmates taken over the asylum? No, don’t answer that question, I think I’d rather not know.

  3. Epluribusunum Post author

    Oh, and they also expressed considerable annoyance that Jack Roberts didn’t join them for this meeting. I kind of have the feeling that Jack Roberts has answered all these questions already on the record, and that there isn’t anything new to add or consider.

  4. Epluribusunum Post author

    If by “discussion” you mean serious, legally competent consideration of those rulings and how they might apply to the Loudoun situation, no. They did, in light of one ruling, try to address how they might make the crèche appear “less religious.”

    But you will love this: The committee chair, Clint Good, shared with the group that, just the day before, he had the pleasure of having lunch with the “pre-eminent Constitutional lawyer” Mike Farris, and that Mike Farris agrees with the opinion of Ken Cuccinelli.

  5. Loudoun's Soul

    Was there any discussion at all about the various Supreme Court rulings on this matter and how they might apply to the committee’s recommendations? I would think such a discussion would be the obvious place to start. It certainly was for Judge Horne and the prior committee. Which leads to the obvious question, is anyone on that committee a expert on Constitutional Law (or even an attorney for that matter)?

  6. Ross Patterson

    Epluribusunum: You KNOW why the creche won’t have a donkey. Now, if somehow they could find an elephant anywhere in the Christmas story, that would be different 🙂

  7. liz

    Because I thought your accommodation was putting the arc of the covenant in front of the courthouse, but now I realize you meant the alternate side accommodation.

    So still not disagreeing. I think accommodation does not violate the establishment clause.

  8. liz

    No, no, not disagreeing

    My “Pretty sure it does” was in response to your “Does making that accommodation violate the Establishment Clause?”.

  9. Epluribusunum Post author

    Liz, are you disagreeing with my answer to 3) “Does the recognition of Christmas as a federal holiday constitute a violation of 2) above? I don’t think so, do you?”

    I guess that’s a whole other can of worms. I’m pretty sure, though, that all members of the committee and the board would vigorously and uniformly agree with my answer – and therein lies their problem. They can’t have it both ways.

  10. Epluribusunum Post author

    “Evergreen wrath,” you’re killing me. Oh yes, people laughed. But I think everyone managed not to laugh out loud, because that would have been rude. I’m still mystified by the inclusion of only three farm animals. Why not four? Why not a donkey? Mine had a donkey. Also, a shepherd boy with a lamb on his shoulders.

  11. Elder Berry

    This really has gotten to be sickening display of ignorance and stupidity. A creche is not religious? Really? Really? No one laughed when he said that?

    Can’t we just follow the historic tradition of this area and put a candle or an evergreen wrath in the courthouse windows and call it a holiday. Really, this is just sickening.

  12. Epluribusunum Post author

    Or an alternate question: Does making that accommodation mean that NYC is now free to place plastic replicas of the Ark of the Covenant in front of courthouses? Or: Does making that accommodation violate the Establishment Clause?

  13. Liz Miller

    If government recognizing a holiday makes it secular, I’d love to see what the pro-display people make of alternate-side parking rules in NYC.

    For those not in the know, alternate-side parking rules are in place in NYC to enable the Dept of Sanitation to clean the streets. Drivers must not park on one side of the street on Mondays and Wednesdays, and they must not park on the other Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays are exempt due to the Jewish Sabbath. And alternate-side rules are suspended on any religious holiday.

    Does that make Yom Kippur secular?

  14. Epluribusunum Post author

    Thank you, Travis – and it’s not just atheists who feel that way. I’ve spoken with some people of faith who feel that a Christmas tree is still the symbol of an inherently religious holiday, and that it excludes them. The fact that it’s at the courthouse rather than some other public space is just the final straw.

    As I said in the post, I think that’s a valid point of view. I also think there are genuinely innocent people who don’t see what harm it does to display a creche – they see it as in the same category as a tree and Santa, just another ubiquitous Christmasy symbol they grew up with.

    It’s the latter attitude that is being exploited, by people who are trying to secularize overtly religious symbols and messages. There was in fact a lengthy discussion at this meeting of how to make the creche seem “less religious.” There have been similar attempts elsewhere to argue that the cross is really a “secular” symbol. People of faith should be leading the revolt against these attempts, as these symbols must be stripped of their sacred meaning in order to make them “acceptable” as government sponsored speech. It ends up being the worst of both worlds. It’s frankly bizarre to hear people claiming to be devout Christians arguing that a crèche or a cross is a secular symbol. I don’t know how they look at themselves in the mirror.

    I do think they are hanging themselves with the argument that Christmas is a federal holiday, because it means exactly the opposite of what they think it means. Unless, of course, they want to accept the proposition that the federal recognition of Christmas violates the Establishment Clause.

  15. Travis

    I’ve spoken previously on this site about my opposition to even a Christmas tree being on the court house grounds. It is still my belief that there should be no displays but my mood has mellowed recently. I’ve made an effort to get out and talk to some fellow atheists and when I’ve broached the subject most generally didn’t have any issue with Christmas tree displays. We had some interesting talks and while I still oppose a Christmas tree display I won’t lose sleep over it. Now of course, a crèche is still out of line.

  16. michelle

    I have heard of “Christmas in July”. Now we have Christmas in April. Easier to fly under the radar, I suppose.

    As you pointed out, but often is overlooked, is the fact that the federal government acknowledges “Christmas” with a paid day off. Though Constitutionally prohibited from endorsing a particular religion, it does, in fact, indicate that the expression endorsed by the government is the “spirit” of Christmas –secular.

    I figure it will take another 20-30 years before we settle this one, however.

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