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. 

    • Coyotenose

       Stop oppressing me with your theories based on documented history!

      • Aaron Scoggin

        I’m sorry, force of habit!

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • Blacksheep

        Christmas (not yule, not Solstice) is, specifically, a celebration of Jesus’ birth. It’s been that way for approximately 1500 years.

        That’s why those songs are in there – they’re not just randomly singing Christian songs at a random time of year.

        • David Starner

          An argument that means they have no business celebrating Christmas. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t make it into an explicitly religious holiday and then say that makes it okay for the government to celebrate it.

          And note that they’re singing songs on the 1st; yes, actually that is a fairly random time of year for singing Christmas songs, especially to the exclusion of Hannukah music and secular holiday music.

    • ReadsInTrees

      It is an issue when 7 of the 8 songs had a specific Christian message. If they played a variety, then it would be fine because it wouldn’t be such a clear promotion of a specific religious viewpoint.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ 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?

    • 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.

    • Dan

       Sing it SOMEWHERE else, that’s all.

      • Isilzha

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

    • 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.

      • ReadsInTrees

        Is is a really good point that Hanukkah is actually happening NOW, but they ignored that. Some people will say, “Well, it’s the twelve days of Christmas now!”….ignoring the fact that the twelve days of Christmas are AFTER December 25.

    • 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.

      • David McNerney

        That is a very fair point.

      • C Peterson

        Agreed. They need to shift to a better balance of secular and nonsecular songs. I think that’s a much better solution than removing all the songs, or limiting it to purely secular songs.

      • Blacksheep

        You need to see the forest for the trees- the holiday is actually called “Christmas” – so it’s harder to separate traditional Christmas songs from the very Holiday that gave birth to them.

        • ReadsInTrees

          There are plenty of secular traditional Christmas songs they could have included: “Up on a Rooftop”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, “White Christmas”, “Let it Snow”, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, “Silver Bells”, “Winter Wonderland”, etc. In any case, the Supreme Court has already determined that the government may recognize Christmas, but it must not use to promote a religious message. Specifically, “The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting people praise God for the birth of Jesus.”

          By singing almost exclusively Jesus-oriented songs, along with reading Bible passages….this town was clearly in violation.

          • Sids

             But almost all of those are exclusionary to people from the southern hemisphere or the southern states…

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee 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.

    • Blacksheep

      How can you classify Christmas traditions being done at Christmastime as “way over the line”?
      There are definitely examples of public favoring of Christianity that qualify as “way over the line” but Christmas songs and Christmas scripture – during Christmas-is not one of them.
      Even if you believe it’s all made up, it’s still the story, tradition, and culture of Christmas.

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

        It is WAY over the line because it is ILLEGAL, and it violates the U.S. Constitution.

        It is absolutely fine for there to be religious Christmas traditions at Christmas time, But that’s as long as it is not GOVERNMENT that is running the religious event.

        But but the GOVERNMENT cannot give preferential honor/display/homage To one religion over another, or to religion over non-religion.

      • David Starner

         It wasn’t done at Christmastime. It was done at the start of December.

        • Michael Appleman

          Christmas time starts right after thanksgiving these days. :p

  • 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!

    • Blacksheep

      O Lord our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of kings, and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all the Kingdoms, Empires and Governments; look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States…”

      - Abraham Lincoln

      Was he a true American? In my opinion, he was.

      • Travshad

        Are you attributing the first prayer of the continental congress given by Jacob Duche in 1774 to Abraham Lincoln?

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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

          Personally, I’ve never felt excluded by a traditional Christmas song that happens to mention Jesus. When I hear people singing such songs, I seldom get the sense they are singing a heartfelt hymn in a church. For most people, I think the words simply flow out without much thought.

          Should we exclude O Tannenbaum from the public repertoire because some Pagans worship fir trees at solstice? I’m quite sure that more small children believe in (and worship!) Santa Claus than they do Jesus. Should we abandon all songs about Santa?

          Sorry, I just can’t see a government sponsored Christmas celebration that happens to include a mix of secular and nonsecular traditional seasonal songs as a governmental endorsement of Christianity.

          • Gus Snarp

            Your O Tannenbaum argument is a blatant false analogy, and also one that ignores the arguments to which you’re responding, so I’ll ignore it.

            As for your first paragraph, in these matters how you personally feel has no bearing on what is legal.

            Try some of these:

            • C Peterson

              I’m with David, above. A mix of secular and nonsecular music at a government sponsored Christmas event is likely to pass the Lemon test and not be seen – legally- as a government endorsement of religion.

              My point went beyond this legal argument, and was focused on the simple cultural value of traditional holiday music. Since I don’t see its performance as having much religious intent, I don’t think it is appropriate to ban it. And especially, given the high esteem much of this music has in our culture (including among non-Christians), I think it is probably harmful to secularism to drag Christmas carols into the discussion.

              • Isilzha

                 It doesn’t matter that YOU think it’s OK.  I, and others, strongly OBJECT to it.  Just keep religion out of government and stop drawing lines about how much is OK to include.  For many people, there is no amount of religion, religious content that’s OK to include.

                • C Peterson

                  I get your objection. But I don’t think it would pass legal muster. I don’t think there is any legal violation occurring here.

                • Blacksheep

                  E. Pluribus Unim means that a single persons opinion does matter. So while you may be legally correct that the government cannot make any laws that establish one religion over another (not that this is what is happening here), to say “it doesn’t matter what YOU think…” goes against the sprit of freedom. It matters what everyone thinks, and that includes the majority who woukd like to include their traditions in publically celebrating Christmas.

                • C Peterson

                  Our country is not ruled by the majority. Whether this town is violating the Constitution or not is a matter of law, not a matter of what the majority believe or what the majority wishes.

                  The majority may want their government to endorse religion, but that doesn’t stop such endorsement from being illegal. Our first line of defense from the majority is elected representatives. When that fails, we have the courts. When both fail, we no longer have our country.

      • 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.

        • David McNerney

          Thing is, if you apply the Lemon test to this, the primary purpose of the music is not religious – which is what makes songs okay and bible readings not.

          Of course, I’m not sure what the secular legislative purpose is – but then the same thing applies to Christmas trees.

        • Isilzha

           I disagree because the purpose of the songs isn’t really to entertain.  Most religious songs are written to “glorify” a deity and to indoctrinate people.

          Why do you think totalitarian governments have deliberately used music to help codify and enforce ideology on people?

          • C Peterson

            I agree that they were often written for that purpose. But those that have become “traditional” – not just Christmas songs, but gospel songs like Amazing Grace – are frequently performed with no religious intent at all. It is the intent of the performance that matters, not the composition.

            In the U.S., most people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. I don’t think most feel they are glorifying any deities when they sing the seasonal songs they grew up with.

            • Isilzha

              It doesn’t matter.  Songs with religious content don’t belong in a government ceremony.  If you don’t object to them then you can sing them to your heart’s content in YOUR home, YOUR church or wherever that’s NOT government/public property.  

              • Bad_homonym

                I think reacting to the songs is a bit of an over-reaction. I pay no more attention to the lyrics in a carol than I do to songs on the radio. I also feel that some centuries or millennia from now when reason rules and religion is fringe, these songs will still be part of the whole season. I also agree that they pass muster by the lemon test. The songs may have been written with religion in mind, but so is the name. I still say merry christmas, and I mean nothing religious by it. It’s simply what it’s called. My kids even know the fairy tale it’s based on and why it is still a celebration today. We have taken it back the same way christianity stole the date!

            • Blacksheep

              According to a Rasmussen report, over 75% of Americans believe that Christmas should be about “Jesus not Santa.”

              That number may go down (or up) but I disagree that the majority celebrates Christmas in a secular way.

              • Michaelbrice

                 If as you say over 75% of Americans believe that Christmas should be about Jesus and not Santa. Then why in a country where Christians are the overwhelming majority is it not so?

              • C Peterson

                I am highly skeptical of such surveys. People answer questions like that with what they think are the “correct” responses. You have only to look around and it’s obvious that most people see Christmas as secular.

                This is why “nones” are understated in surveys, as well. Many people claim to be Christian because that’s the “right” answer based on how they grew up… despite the fact that they are, for all practical purposes, without religious beliefs.

  • 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.

  • 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

    I wish we could get more religious allies on board with these things. It would be nice if Americans United was taking the lead and FFRF was in more of a support role. And while having liberal Christians take the right side would be nice, what I would really prefer is to see the lead plaintiffs, if and when these things go to court, be Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses instead of, or at least in addition to, atheists. I believe that freedom of religion requires freedom from religion, and that our rights are just as important. I’d just much rather that Fox News and that ilk be forced to come out and spew their hate at a recognized minority towards which society tends not to tolerate outright, open hostility, or a minority that is also an evangelical Christian denomination.

    • Blacksheep

      The goal of “Freedom OF Religion” is not to get rid of all religion. That may be the goal of FFRF, but that doesn’t mean it was the goal of the constitution.

  • advancedatheist

    This harassment of small-town governments shows why I stopped paying membership dues to the bullies at FFRF. I live about 30 miles from Prescott and go shopping there a few times a month. Its religionists strike me as basically decent and benign people, and certainly less aggressive about proselytizing than the ones I grew up with in Tulsa. They don’t deserve this kind of meddling from the atheist attention-whores in Madison, WI.

    • machintelligence

      I hope you didn’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. 

    • ReadsInTrees

      Well, it’s the small events that give people the gall to put on the big aggressive events. It gives credibility to the large events when the small events are “OK”.

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      For me that is why I send more money to the freedom from religion foundation! Because they do TERRIFIC work like this!

      • AlaJackd

         Well that’s because you’re a bigot.

        • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

          Very funny.
          By your mentality, because I do not want the government to give special privileges to one religion that makes me a bigot?

          Because I want equal treatment for ALL citizens, that makes me a bigot?

          You sure have some very warped ideas about what qualifies someone to be called a bigot!

          • AlaJackd

             Bigotry towards Christians. Pretty easy, actually.

            • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

              Go away. You have clearly demonstrated your ignorance here.

            • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

              By your rationale, if I do not want “whites only” bathrooms, drinking fountains, and front areas of the buses, then I am a bigot against white people, right?

              By my rationale, having all people treated equally is not bigotry. Failing to give special privileges to a group that is already the majority is not bigotry. I advocate that the government should treat all citizens equally. Is that something you are opposed to?

              • AlaJackd

                 The only group of people a “secular” holiday celebration “includes” are atheists. Get off your self-righteous high horse. CHRISTMAS is for Christians. Other religions have their own holidays, but this one is for CHRISTIANS. Luckily for you bigots, you get to enjoy the federal holidays. You can thank us for that.

                • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

                  The troll is hungry. But I will try to resist feeding him.

                • allein

                  If Christmas is only for Christians then the government has no business making it a federal holiday in the first place.

    • Brian Scott

      While I do think this entire thing is benign, I don’t see how you’re argument against it is valid. Yes, the people may be nice, but that doesn’t matter if it’s actually true that they’re breaking the law.

      If it helps, view this as an administerial issue. To what extent are people invested in having public celebration of their religion? Removing government administration does not infringe on their rights to celebrate it. They put up lights, they sing carols on their own time and in their youth groups and churches. They can do it in public, even! They put up Christmas trees, eat Christmas dinners, watch the gods know how many different renditions of “A Christmas Carol”. Heck, I’d do all that too!

      Why are people emotionally invested in their local governments do this for them that they have to construe attempts to prevent it as attacking them, even if we are to accept that such attempts are benign and meant in good faith?

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    Hmmm, when I went to our community’s tree lighting a few years ago, the choirs included some religious carols. I can’t  really count singing a traditional song as proselytizing. Prayers and Bible readings, certainly, but Joy to the World? I look at that the same way I look at songs about Rudolph and Frosty. People aren’t analyzing the lyrics. They’re singing a familiar tune they’ve heard all their lives.

  • AlaJackd

    20 children murdered in cold blood today and you bigots are worried about people celebrating Christmas…. Nice. 

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      You know, when tragedies arise, it isn’t as if other problems disappear. If this is worth paying attention to, it’s worth paying attention to if something else big is happening as well.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      You’re referring to a post I made before the shooting happened? Smooth.

      • AlaJackd

         Yes, that would be the one. When it was made is perfectly irrelevant. Calling for an exclusion of a group of people only because they’re different from you, and you don’t understand them is ignorance and bigotry. Period.

  • ImRike

    Personally, I don’t mind Christmas songs, be they religious or not.  The problem is when we complain about separation of Church and State and then agree to “not worry” about religious songs, it will only cause more confusion. Christians right now do not understand (or act like they don’t ) the “equality” of the Separation of Church and State issue; so, if we raise the point and then say it’s ok for them to keep singing their religious songs, it will only make things worse: “Well, if it’s alright to sing the songs, why can’t we read from the Bible?”
    No, I think if we protest, we have to go all the way and be consistent. We’re the boogeyman already, we might as well stick to it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kennytheecat Kenny Scott

    Some more information about the event…

    It is not put on by the city, it is put on by the Chamber of Commerce. The lights are paid for by donations to the local businesses surrounding the square.
    http://www.prescottenews.com/index.php/news/current-news/item/20944-welcome-to-the-xmas-city

  • Dantes

    I Agree to C Peterson, If there was not a single secular song on this concert, it’s a bit too far, but Hell again, Christmas as we know it spawned from the Christian celebration of Jesus and stuff. Sure it is good to make public celebrations inclusive but wippin out the past out of political correctness sound very Stalinian in my opinion. I agree that those that organised the event probably did so with at least a faint idea of spreading the gospel, (and i think it sucks) but holding on the old traditions (as long as they are not armful) is, in my opinion, something that cannot be fairly attacked. Sure, nativity scenes are to be in churches, not in municipal office (as it is in europe) but if you want a government that wipes off every tradition that has even a hint of religion in it, I can only call you one name: Mao. 

    And as a side note:

    The secular songs that are proposed here (“Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, “White Christmas”, “Let it Snow”, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, “Silver Bells”, “Winter Wonderland”)all sucks. They play them all the time at my work and it makes me gag even more than the Rihanna and gaga stuff they play generally.

    I would rather hear “Il est né le divin enfant” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Il_est_n%C3%A9,_le_divin_Enfant) a hundred times, despite their religious themes than half of “All i want for christmas is you”

  • Pam

    I was SO HAPPY and so PROUD to bring my family to this event, and had tears of thankfulness when I heard the TRUE Christmas story being read from the Word of God!   After-all, JESUS is the REASON FOR THE SEASON!


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