Schoolchildren and Local Officials Promote Christianity at Lighting Ceremony in Arizona’s ‘Christmas City’

The city of Prescott, Arizona appears to have an official religion: Christianity.

On December 1st, the City Council, Arizona Secretary of State, and students from the public schools all took part in a lighting ceremony in front of the Yavapai County Courthouse that involved telling the Christmas story, singing religious songs, and reading from the Bible (just watch the 3:45 mark below):

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is all over it (PDF):

The “story” [Arizona Secretary of State Ken] Bennett read was text from the book of Luke in the Christian bible, chapters one and two. The songs the children were asked to sing were overtly religious as well. “To address only one of the seven songs, “Joy to the World’s” lyrics include references to ‘the Lord,’ our ‘King,’ ‘Heaven,’ ‘the Savior reigns,’ ‘sins,’ ‘He rules the world through truth and grace’ and ‘His righteousness.’ According to the opening verse of the song the world is meant to feel joy because ‘The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room…’ This proclaims Jesus the King of the Earth and asks every listener to become Christian. In other words, the government stamp of approval is given to a song not only espousing Christianity, but also proselytizing for Christianity.

This goes way beyond lighting a tree. With this many references to Christianity, how anyone could claim its a secular event — inclusive of all the citizens — is lost on me.

Arizona Governor Rose Perico Mofford designated Prescott as “Arizona’s Christmas City” in 1989, so this event has probably been going on for a while. They’ll say it’s tradition and that no one complained until this year, but time alone doesn’t right a wrong. Prescott has no business promoting one religion over another on government property, with elected officials in their public capacity advocating for Christianity.

The FFRF isn’t suing the city. Not yet. They’re just asking for written notice that future ceremonies stick to “secular songs and symbols like tree lighting, Santa, and reindeer” instead of Bible readings and Christian hymns.

For Prescott, this is an easy out and they should take it before taxpayers are on the hook for the officials’ negligence.

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.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Oh, here we go. I bet the first thing we’ll get accused of is “Making a war on Christmas trees and lights”. They sprinkle it with secular events, hose it down with good ol’ Christianity, and then when someone calls them on it, they can act like we’re making a big deal out of lighting a Christmas tree. 

  • David McNerney

    Are Christmas Carols not a battle too far?

    Bible readings make me uncomfortable, I think because they are deliberately trying to send a message – but there is a kind of implied assumption that songs in general do not reflect reality.  I offer the original video of Wham’s “Last Christmas” as evidence and the Fairytale of New York – it’s not true – ditto for Santa, Rudolf and Baby Jesus.

  • Coyotenose

     Stop oppressing me with your theories based on documented history!

  • Aaron Scoggin

    I’m sorry, force of habit!

  • Andrew Hall

    Taunton, MA is a self titled ‘Christmas City’ also. A friend of mine lives there and has gotten the FFRF involved regarding the nativity scene on city property.

  • Dantes

    This goes a bit too far. Okay, reading bible verses is no go, but condemning every christmas song that has any christian reference in it ? What the Fuck ? Sure, it’s straightforwardly christian, but yet again, one cannot deny that, in the past, christianity was the main source of inspiration in the art (this varies a lot regarding which art and which period but still). Yeah, “Joy to the World” is a christian themed song, but it’s also a awesome tune, I know, I sang it a couple of years ago when I was in a choir and despite being wholly anti-abrahmic i still enjoyed it. There are other songs that goes much further towards christianity but hell, it’s a eightenth century song written but Handel and I like it ten times more than the sucky “Santa Baby” and its godless message.

    What’s next ? ask the government to stop funding museums that exhibit christian art ? You know, stuff like Renaissance triptych, Gothic crucifixions, medieval illuminated manuscripts ?   

    Sometimes, dear American, you can be quite puzzling. Drop it off already and drink some gløg with pepper cakes, t’ll calm you. 

     greetings from Norway.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Where the hell is my “like” button?

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    This goes WAY over the line.

    These Constitutional violations are why it is so important for local freethinkers to report their local municipalities,  and why it is so important to support (e.g. join, donate) groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United (for the Separation of Church and State), etc.

  • Quintin

    It’s not that there are Christian references in the songs, these are only indicative of their purpose, which is a problem because it seems like that’s what they’re being used for against all constitutional prohibitions.

  • Andy

    I live in Prescott, but didn’t attend the ceremony. I’ll check with FFRF to see if they need a local to complain.

  • Isilzha

    Why would any ‘True’ American want to have a government ceremony that celebrates having ANY sort of king (religious or secular)?  Anyone who does so should be forced to turn in all flag paraphernalia and sent to a country where they can be subjects instead of citizens!

  • Isilzha

     No, it’s a battle that hasn’t gone far enough obviously.  I certainly don’t want any government ceremony proclaiming ANY sort of king in this country.

  • Dan

     Sing it SOMEWHERE else, that’s all.

  • Isilzha

    Religious songs are no better than bible verses.  None of it belongs in our government.

  • eric

    I’d be okay with a program containing a mix of secular and religious songs or observances.  Particularly if they were taken from multiple faiths and/or time periods.  After all, its Hannukah RIGHT NOW while Christmas doesn’t start for another week and a half.  You can’t seriously claim a program of all-Christian material is just being seasonal if you’re ignoring another religion’s ONGOING seasonal celebrations in  favor of a Christian celebration that hasn’t even happened yet.

    While a mixed celebration would be okay (IMO), Joy to the World a part of an ‘all-Christian spectacular’ type of celebration does signal a problem.

  • eric

    IMO its a battle too far if the city is being inclusive as to songs of many faiths (and none).  Want to do Jingle Bells + Handel’s Messiah + Sandler’s Hannukah song?  Be my guest.  Sounds like an interesting program. 

    But its not a battle too far if every single song the city picks is a celebration of Jesus’ birth.  If they do that, I think its very appropriate to complain about potential establishment issues.

  • Isilzha

    Well, to be clear, sing it someplace that’s NOT a government sponsored event.

  • ReadsInTrees

    If they included some Hanukkah songs and secular songs then it would be fine. But if they stuck to Christian songs…then it’s a no go.

  • C Peterson

    I’m as anti-theist and anti-Christian as you can get, but I think it’s a mistake to come down on singing traditional Christmas songs. They are part of the holiday, as much for those who see it as secular as for those who don’t. So what if Joy to the World is about a mythical character? So is Santa Claus is Coming to Town. So is Frosty the Snowman. Indeed, what could be better for those of us who would like to see kids move away from religion than an event where Jesus, Frosty, and Santa are all treated as equivalent? (I would require that at a public event like this, however, the songs include a mix of the secular and nonsecular.)

    Reading from the Bible in this public setting is absolutely wrong, and should be ended. Any display of overtly religious symbols in this setting is wrong, and should be ended. But to stop singing traditional songs is silly, reduces the enjoyment of the season even for non-Christians, and almost certainly damages the credibility of secularists when it comes to bona fide violations of state/church separation.

  • DougI

    If people don’t have a problem with taxpayer support of religious Christmas songs they won’t have a problem with taxpayer support of religious hymnals.

  • Isilzha

     If people worshiped Santa and wanted to proclaim Frosty some sort of religious King then I’d have a problem with those myths being included in any sort of government ceremony. 

    Just keep religion out of government whether it’s the form of nativity displays, bible verses or song.

  • David McNerney

    That is a very fair point.

  • Huckster Sam

    Always a remarkable thing, people’s ability to completely ignore all the other information and laser focus on  something for them to object to. 

    “Who cares if a city is openly reading biblical passages from a courthouse? You vile atheists hate music and fun!”

  • Gus Snarp

    Exactly. It has nothing to do with the song being about a mythological character, it has everything to do with the song being a blatant worship song for a religion that millions of American still believe in and it sends a clear message that if you don’t believe it, you’re not welcome.

  • C Peterson

    Just keep religion out of government whether it’s the form of nativity displays, bible verses or song.

    I agree, except in the case of music. Even a religious song need not have a religious purpose. I grew up singing Christmas songs, and it never even occurred to me that they were religious. I’m reminded of the late David Randolph, the esteemed conductor of the St. Cecilia Chorus (itself overtly secular). Randolph, an outspoken atheist, holds the record for the number of times anyone has conducted Handel’s Messiah. He discussed this on the FFRF radio show a few years back. He had fine things to say about how religiously themed or motivated music should not be taken as religious.

    I simply find it hard to see the singing of traditional carols (assuming a mix of the secular and nonsecular) at a government sponsored Christmas celebration as constituting a government endorsement of religion.