The War on Christmas is Already Beginning

For years now, Loudoun County, Virginia officials have been trying to figure out how to handle holiday displays on public property — the county courthouse.

Last Winter, they opened the floodgates and allowed all groups that wanted them to have displays. Of the 10 displays, most of them came from non-Christians :)

This year, they’re not taking that chance. The Loudoun County Courts Grounds and Facilities Committee met earlier this week to discuss the issue.

Committee member John Mileo argued that the county was best protected from legal challenges by limiting the display items to those that “pay homage to Christmas,” such as a crèche, Christmas tree and Santa Claus.

Ummm… no. You do that and you’re gonna get sued.

Rick Wingrove of Beltway Atheists explained that at the meeting:

Wingrove said a secular holiday tree would be acceptable to him and his group, but they would actively oppose overtly religious displays on the courthouse grounds.

“The county simply cannot put up a Nativity scene,” he said, citing several court decisions. “They will be sued and they will lose.” He predicted the ensuing legal proceedings would cost the county $2 million.

They took some straw polls at the meeting to see where the commissioners stood.

What about the crèche, Christmas tree and holiday greenery display? Unanimous vote in favor of it all.

What about including a Menorah? It passed… but by a 5-3 margin. Close call.

A snowman? They voted against it. Because, you know, that’s just not godly enough.

This is a lawsuit just waiting to happen… especially when you consider the logic by the people in charge:

Mileo proposed that the county’s crèche be limited to “the baby Jesus in the manger, the Virgin Mother and Father Joseph on either side, and three farm animals.”

He recommended that the crèche be as plain as possible, “not an overly religious-looking crèche,” and suggested that angels not be included.

Because if you have Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… but no angels… it’s not religious looking?

I hope they’ve saving up taxpayer money because it’ll go right into the hands of whatever atheist group plans to sue them.

Meanwhile, in Henderson County, Texas, they’re debating whether or not an atheist sign can be put on the county grounds this winter. In addition to the nativity scene that’s already there.

For nearly a decade, Henderson County has put up a Christmas-themed display that includes trees, lights, Santa Claus and a manger.

Commissioners voted to put up the holiday display once again this December, but have yet to decide how to handle the legal questions before them.

(FFRF is already on that case.)

Look, none of these cases are that hard to solve. Either officials have to allow all displays — including those from atheist groups and Pagan groups and Scientologist groups — or keep the grounds free of faith during the winter. Pick one. I don’t care which. But if any government, local or otherwise, shows favoritism for one faith over other faiths or theism over atheism, we’re coming after you. And we’ll win. The law is on our side.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.zazzle.com/godless_monsters The Godless Monster

    Why should we refer to this as the “War on Christmas”?
    Let’s do it right and instead of accepting the fundie name for this conflict call it “The War FOR Christmas”. It is, after all, originally a secular holiday anyway, even if by a different name.
    I like Christmas and celebrate it with friends and family.

  • Reason_Being

    When are these groups going to realize that the law is not on their side?  Personally, I don’t care if my town does the whole Christmas thing…but I agree completely with Hemant’s last paragraph.  If they are going to do the whole Christmas thing…then they need to allow everything from atheist signs to  whatever voodoo stuff the old dude across the street seems to believe in…

  • TnkAgn

    In Wasilla Alaska, home of Sarah Palin and where I lived for a number of years, a mobile nativity scene appears in a city park every Xmas. This scene can be viewed from the freeway that passes through Wasilla by thousands of motorists. It comes on a trailer, is illuminated by taxpayer-paid electricity, and is known as “Jesus-in-a-Box.” It is also patently unconstitutional, but has yet to be challenged in court. Given Wasilla’s red-neckedness and righty Republican demographic, I’m not surprised. Just thought it worth adding to the discussion.

    • JohnK

      It’s certainly not “patently unconstitutional” since the constitution guarantees the free expression of religion. Furthermore, by displaying the mobile nativity scene, even in a public park, the government is not “making any laws” regarding the establishment of religion. So while I agree that the courts have most often translated the constitution in your anti-Christmas favor, it’s because of judges who simply happen to agree with your point of view. If I were a judge, I would argue that the traditional symbols of Christmas, such as a nativity scene, are cultural and decorative and linked to the Christmas holiday in the majority of peoples minds and therefore should be allowed to be displayed. Waging a “war on Christmas” is patently obnoxious.

      • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

        “It’s certainly not “patently unconstitutional” since the constitution guarantees the free expression of religion.”

        But not with public funds or on public land.

        “Furthermore, by displaying the mobile nativity scene, even in a public park, the government is not “making any laws” regarding the establishment of religion.”

        It is advocating one religion over another. Why is it that these things never come up with local governments advocating a Hindu holiday?

        “So while I agree that the courts have most often translated the constitution in your anti-Christmas favor, it’s because of judges who simply happen to agree with your point of view.”

        Because they understood what was meant by the founders when they created a secular system and not a religious one.

        “If I were a judge, I would argue that the traditional symbols of Christmas, such as a nativity scene, are cultural and decorative and linked to the Christmas holiday in the majority of peoples minds and therefore should be allowed to be displayed.”

        If I were creating the world, I wouldn’t mess about with daffodils and butterflies. I would have started with lasers. Eight o’clock! Day one!

        “Waging a “war on Christmas” is patently obnoxious.”

        Perhaps a mite less obnoxious than telling us atheists that we don’t have any moral compass, and that we deserve to burn in some mythical torture fire chamber for the rest of eternity.

      • TnkAgn

         Sorry John, but the prevailing court wisdom has been to ban creches, nativity scenes and such unless accompanied by secular symbols like Santa, Elves, Frosty the Snowman…
        http://atheism.about.com/od/religioussymbolsholidays/a/nativitydisplay_4.htm

        It’s known as an “Excessive entanglement of church and state,” and has at least much emphasis in the 1st Amendment as the “Free exercise” clause.

        The judges don’t agree with my point of view, they agree with the Constitutional point of view, rather than the troll point of view. Good thing trolls are not judges…yet.

      • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

        More to the point, it’s un-Christian. Your own Jesus himself explicitly and clearly forbid you ever to display your piety in public. Please read Matthew 6:1-6 … then, if you wish to remain an obedient Christian, do what it tells you to do.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    These people are just gluttons for financial and legal punishment, aren’t they? I have to keep hearing from right-wing talk radio station WPRO about the Woonsocket, RI Christian cross on taxpayer-owned land. They just… don’t… get it.

    • JohnK

      The part that you have wrong is that we don’t get it. We get it 100%, which is precisely why we’re fighting to hold on to the right to freely express our religion. Are you the sort that backs down from a fight for what you know is right because of the cost? You would have been one of those who said of Rosa Parks, “She just… doesn’t… get it – she must be a glutton for financial and legal punishment! Doesn’t she understand the constitution?”

      Did you forget that the constitution is a living document that can be changed based on public opinion? That’s what amendments are for!

      • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

        You do not have the right to have the government endorse your religious beliefs by putting religious symbols on taxpayer-owned land. Sorry, but the courts of this country have upheld the separation of church and state in cases like these, more often than not. Legal precedence is largely against things like this.

        And please don’t speak for me and what I would have said at various points in our history. Nothing in the constitution says black people have to sit at the back of a bus. But there is a part that establishes separation of church and state. And until that is changed legally, we must adhere to it.

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        Then exercise your right to attempt repealing the First Amendment. But until then, what this town is doing is illegal. They have three choices: don’t allow nonsecular holiday displays at all (the best choice), make a sham of Christmas entirely by allowing all manner of displays (not so great), or allow a limited religious display and end up costing the town somewhere between a few hundred thousand and a few million dollars (a really horrible choice).

        Of course, if the town does the right thing and gets rid of all religious displays, this in no way touches on your right to freely express your religion. That right remains protected by the First Amendment (at least, until you manage to repeal it).

      • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

        Re: “We get it 100%, which is precisely why we’re fighting to hold on to the right to freely express our religion.

        You do realize, of course, that no one is saying you cannot “freely express your religion” by putting up nativities on your own lawns or in front of your churches? You most certainly can do so … and groups like the dreaded ACLU would fight anyone who might try to prevent it.

        What you cannot do is use government property to express your religion. Buy your own property and put your own Christmas displays on it.

        The really curious thing about this, though, is why so many Christians are so militant about expressing their piety with public displays like nativities. Your own Jesus specifically and clearly ordered you never to engage in the practice of public piety. I can only assume this is news to you and most other Christians, so I’ll help you out by quoting the gospel according to Matthew for you:

        “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

        That happens to be Mt 6:1-6, in case you wish to look it up for yourself; I hope you will, and I hope you will read the rest of the Sermon on the Mount while you’re at it.

        • http://www.akhnatonsjournal.org/ Dan

          Well said, and I would add that it was religious folks who originally fought the hardest for the separation between the church and state! During the colonial era, many states had state-supported churches (usually Anglican or Congregationalist) in which you paid taxes to regardless of whether or not you belonged to them.  So many of the Baptist, Methodists, and other budding evangelical churches at the time pushed hard for the establishment clause and abolishment of state support for churches.  In fact, the famous ‘wall separating church and state’ comment from Jefferson is from a letter he sent to a Baptist church assuring them that he supported such efforts after they reached out to him.

          • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

            You’re right. To this I can only add 2 small points:

            First, Jefferson’s remark in his letter is itself a reflection of a comment made during an earlier struggle for religious freedom … waged about a century before him by Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. In one of his treatises, Williams had said, “… when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, and made his Garden a Wilderness …”

            Second, once one has gotten across the point that all Americans ought to be Christians, the question then inevitably moves on to, “Which form of Christianity should everyone adhere to?” Using government to push a religion on people, will always result, later, in a sectarian struggle between adherents of the same religion. Men like Williams and Jefferson had discovered this the hard way, themselves, and modern Christians would do well to remember it.

      • Coyotenose

         Nonsense. You can freely express your religion, and you damn well know it. You just can’t force the rest of us to PAY for you to express it.

        You must be one of those who now says of the Civil Rights movement, “Well, that’s long over, job done. Now how can we steal its trappings to feign persecution when we’re really just losing special privileges?”

      • amycas

         Why don’t you freely express your religion on private property? Why do  you need government property to express your religion?

        • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          Outside of laws regulating disruptive behavior, people are free to express their religion on public property, as well.

          What is under discussion here has nothing to do with the right of people to express their religion, either publicly or privately. It’s about the attempt by a government entity to promote religion, which is illegal.

          • amycas

            I understand this C Peterson. My point was that they don’t need public property to do so, and in this case they are trying to only allow their religion to be displayed. It should be all or nothing. I would prefer no religious-based displays, but if they must have one, then all should be allowed. Either way, I still see no reason why they should get all upset if somebody tells them to use private property, like at their church or in front of their own house, instead.

            • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              Right, but we still have to be careful when we talk about “they”. “They” as individuals are pretty free to express their religion wherever they want. “They” as the Board of Commissioners certainly are not.

  • Bill the Cat

    My wife an I were invited to our neighbors house for Christmas dinner last year. (we are a long way from home in the ignorant state of Florida.) My neighbors are from the Caribbean, and originally several generations previously from India. Yes, they are Buddhists. We had Santa Claus, we had gifts & trees. We had fabulous food, and more fun than I had ever had at Christmas. However, we had NO baby Jesus, or any type of woo. (well, there WERE the atomic deer out on the lawn…)

    My experience is 80% celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday – as it should be (and originally was.)

    Bah, humbug, Y’all!

  • Anon

    What about Christmas things that aren’t Christ-y. Can they do lights, Christmas tree, snowman and elves? Is it just when the nativity scene comes into play that the risk being suid?

    • Ibis3

      Yes. Because lights, tree, snowman, & elves are, for all intents and purposes, considered secular. A nativity scene refers to the mythology of the predominant contemporary religion.

  • GeraardSpergen

    You’d think appealing to the financial sense of these people would do it.  Like RW says, the inevitable lawsuit is pre-lost.

    • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

      Actually, groups like Liberty Counsel (which is not actually in favor of “liberty,” it’s in favor of “forcing everyone to become fundamentalist Christians like themselves”) frequently promise to pay the costs of these little excursions into legal extremism. The argument that it’s too expensive to fight these battles in court, won’t work, if militant Rightists like the Koch brothers are writing checks for them.

      • Coyotenose

        When they promise to pay costs, they don’t mention that they only mean their own legal fees. When they inevitably lose, their clients are left holding the bag on penalties and their opponents’ legal costs. Meanwhile, their supposed patrons head off with a nice profit from shilling for donations to “help the cause”.

        • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

          Oh, I realize that when these fronts promise to pay the costs, they don’t really pay ALL the costs. I’m well aware they’re disingenuous about it. I was just pointing out that there are religionists who dismiss this objection because these promises have been made to them. I’m not saying those promises will be fulfilled completely.

    • http://twitter.com/WCLPeter Rob U

      You don’t need any financial sense when you’re spending other people’s money, unfortunately the people who’s money is being spent would probably think this is a worthy cause to spend it on.

      When you’re already giving 10% of your gross pay to the arbiters of the myth, what’s a little extra money to the tax man to keep Baby Jesus in the park?

  • http://www.akhnatonsjournal.org/ Dan

    Actually it passes the Sandra Day O’Connor/Anthony Kennedy test.  The last major Christmas display cases to make it to SCOTUS set a precedent that allow religious themes to be displayed as long as they were not overtly promoting religion.  Nativity scenes and Menorahs were considered ok. Signs that say “Jesus saves” not ok. There was nothing in those cases that said they must include all religions.  You may not agree with it, but that’s how it was decided.  If another case makes it to the Supreme Court any time soon with O’Connor gone, who knows what will happen. It could even be worse.

    • TnkAgn

       ACLU v. Schundler (1999) says otherwise. Throw in some Santas, some reindeer, some Frosty, you got me.
      http://atheism.about.com/library/decisions/holydays/bldec_ACLUSchundler.htm

      • http://www.akhnatonsjournal.org/ Dan

        That case never went to the US Supreme Court. The two cases that Mr. Wingrove sites are Allegheny Co. vs. ACLU and Board Review vs. Pinette.  The first case involved a Menorah, Christmas tree, and nativity scene on the courthouse property in Pittsburgh. Scotus had no problem with the Menorah and the Christmas Tree and the only issue with the nativity scene is that it had overt religious messages. Kennedy and O’Connor said take them down and the nativity scene is fine.  The second case mentioned was a weird case of the county not letting a KKK clansman put up a cross. The clansman actually won that case before the supreme court! 

        • TnkAgn

           “The issue with the nativity scene is that it had overt religious messages.” And was displayed in a public place on public property…
          Jebus and Hades, man! What do you not get about this?

          • http://www.akhnatonsjournal.org/ Dan

            Chill, dude. I agree with you. Nativity scenes should not be displayed on public property. Kennedy and O’Connor are the one’s you have issue with.  They set the ridiculous ‘accomadationist’ precedent.  That’s the point I am trying to make. There are thousands of towns that put nativity scenes up on Christmas and they are all legal, unfortunately. Mr. Wingrove has his facts wrong, but that doesn’t mean I don’t support his goals.

            • TnkAgn

               Oh…
              Got it, Dan. Thanks,
              Talk later.

            • amycas

               I believe the reason this town would be sued is because they are only allowing a Christian themed nativity scene, but won’t allow anything else.

  • DG

    Our county courthouse has no problem. A manger scene. A general sign proclaiming equality for all. And any group who wants to put up a display can, as long as it doesn’t deliberately attack someone else’s belief.

    • Coyotenose

       The wording of your post combined with what we see on this site about what regularly happens to secular groups’ advertisements and billboards suggests that a holiday sign with an atheistic message would be barred from your county courthouse grounds no matter its content. That IS a problem.

  • TimothyMeadows

    Mileo proposed that the county’s crèche be limited to “the baby Jesus in the manger, the Virgin Mother and Father Joseph on either side, and three farm animals.”

    An ass, a pig and a turkey?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

    No Christian Privilege there, eh?

    • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

      There is no such thing as “Christian privilege.” In their minds anyway! As they see it, Christians never get “‘special’ privileges.” Any preferential treatment they get, is what is rightfully owed to them by virtue of their being dutiful Christians. And anyone who dares tell them they aren’t owed any preference, is “persecuting” them and needs to be wiped out.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    A lot of the religionists involved in these decisions are eager to become the one “test case” that reaches the US Supreme Court and overturns current precedent. They think they can win, and they think the expenditure of money will be worth it. (There are religionist think-tanks and legal fronts that promise to cover all their costs.) They do this even though they can’t win. (Not unless the religionists in SCOTUS manage to bully the rest into acquiescing, which I suppose might happen, but don’t consider likely.)

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    I’d like to suggest that they have Eugene Delguadio do performance art.  Just give him carte blanche to cavort.   It will bring in hordes of observers who hopefully will stay to shop.

  • Sharon Hypatia

    I did a Google search  for churches in Loudoun County, Virginia. At least 40 were listed.
    If a creche is so vital to their religious beliefs, they I would expect EVERY SINGLE ONE of those chruches to have a creche in front during xmas (And maybe a big display of the 10 commandments during the year, while we’re at it).
    I know that ain’t so in Georgia, where every xmas I check out dozens of my local churches – and have only found 2 (Yes, 2!!)  that put out a creche.
    This is n’t about religious expression. It isn’t about religious freedom. It is about a small power mad group (a minority even among xtians) who want to throw their weight around, display their special privilege and shove their beliefs downs everyone else’s throat – at the taxpayer’s expense.

  • Coyotenose

    Off topic I know, but I just noticed that a nearby church put up signs advocating specific candidates for political office. Can anyone tell me the best entity or entities to contact about such after I document it?

    • amycas

       The IRS? Freedom from Religion Foundation maybe?


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