– by Brittany Meyer
It’s that time of year again — time to revamp the “religious winter holiday display on public property” debate. It’s a discussion that never seems to take a holiday of its own. This week, Leesburg, VA decided to decide and then decided to decide later whether holiday displays would be allowed on Loudoun County courthouse grounds this upcoming December. One side, the Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee wants to ban all displays. The other side, including many community members and Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio, thinks all displays should be allowed — apparently even atheist ones.
Holding aside my belief that there are bigger unconstitutional fish to fry and arguing about whether a “Merry Christmas” sign should greet us on court house steps only serves to make atheists look petty and without more important grievances, the case law on religious holiday displays is, in a word, wrong.
In Lynch v. Donnelly, a Christmas display including Santa and a nativity scene was challenged in the Supreme Court. The court found the display constitutional because taken along with the rest of the scene, it had the “legitimate secular purpose” of celebrating the season and the origins of Christmas.
In Allegheny County v. ACLU, two displays went up on the chopping block — a nativity scene and a Christmas Tree along with a Menorah. Here, the nativity scene did violate the constitution because it was alone and without other Christmas symbols, like a statue of Santa Claus. The Menorah was fine, because it was with a Christmas Tree.
I disagree with both of these decisions — the establishment clause prohibits endorsement of religion over no religion as much as it prohibits the endorsement of one religion over another. SCOTUS is not perfect (try as lawyers and law students might to convince themselves otherwise) and sometimes they get it wrong before they get it right.
Assuming then, legally, all a display depicting the virgin birth of the Christian savior need do to become ‘secular’ is be placed with an overweight man and his flying reindeer, Loudoun County is doing the diplomatic thing by deciding between all displays or none at all. Either of these options should be constitutional under any evaluation. It will be interesting to see what they decide.