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A quick review of holiday-related cases and controversies

December 23, 2014 by NCC Staff

 

As the holiday season heads toward a conclusion, the annual conflicts over nativity seasons and religious references have reached a high point. Here’s a look at some current Christmas controversies around the country.

Nativity_Egan_Florida500The seasonal squabbles over public displays of Nativity seasons have become almost commonplace. So, too, has popular TV talk show host Bill O’Reilly’s annual debate about political correctness and the “War On Christmas.” O’Reilly’s spirited discussions with atheist groups about the right to have “religious displays” removed from taxpayer-owned property have been going on for the better part of decade.

The Fox host recently declared victory in his battle to get store owners to allow their employees to say “Merry Christmas” to customers.

“I've been doing this for about 10 years, and this is the only year we have not had a store command its employees not to say 'Merry Christmas,'" O’Reilly told NBC’s Seth Meyers. “It's over, we won. Anyone can say 'Merry Christmas' if they want to. They don't have to — I'm not Stalin. But I'm very happy."

But beyond the TV showmanship resides a serious constitutional question: Does the presence of menorahs, nativity scenes and other religious symbols on public property represent a state endorsement of religion?

And as we all know, the Constitution’s First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Supreme Court has handed down mixed guidance on this issue, as we recently profiled in a story on the “Plastic Reindeer” rule.

A 1984 Supreme Court decision found that the public display of a nativity scene at a publicly owned area in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was constitutional, because the scene appeared alongside secular symbols such as a plastic reindeer, a Santa Claus house and a Christmas tree.

Thirty years later, the Plastic Reindeer rule has been broadened to allow tributes to Satan, and something called the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to appear near public nativity scenes.

This year, a “Snaketivity” scene is appearing at Michigan’s state capitol, near a traditional nativity scene supported by a local government official. In Florida, a Satanic Temple display is making its first appearance at Florida’s capitol in Tallahassee.

Last year, the Satanic scene was barred from a display area that featured the Spaghetti Monster and a Seinfeld-inspired Festivus pole. But the threat of a lawsuit gave Satan a spot on this year’s display.

Then there is the federal lawsuit over a life-sized Nativity scene in Franklin County, Indiana. The ACLU and Thomas More Society have agreed to leave the scene in place until December 26, when a federal judge will continue to consider the case.

Also on the docket was a fight over a “Keeping Christ in Christmas” parade in Alabama. The Freedom from Religion Foundation was able to get parade organizers to change the events name, but religious groups still participated in the event in Piedmont, Ala.

In a story we also profiled last month, a nativity scene has been allowed at the Henderson County courthouse in Texas. Incoming Governor Greg Abbott, acting in his current role as attorney general, was able to dissuade several lawsuits seeking to bar the scene.

And in a non-religious holiday lawsuit, Mark and Kathy Hyatt will be allowed to keep their gigantic holiday light display in southern Florida, which was featured on a national television show. Planation Acres has called the lightshow a “nuisance” after it needed to hire extra police to keep order and neighbors complained about crowds. The matter is on going.

One final note: an Indiana state senator is sponsoring a bill that would allow public schools teachers to celebrate Christmas in their classrooms, along with other seasonal holidays. Jim Smith’s bill will likely get the attention of opponents, since it also endorses public nativity scenes.

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