Jaws: The Christmas special

DKMZY SANTA JAWS 1Tell me, you dedicated readers of religion news, can you imagine anything worse than seeing the following pairs of words in the same story — “Fred Phelps” and “Christmas wars.”

Actually, a “Christmas wars” link is merely implied in the mess that is getting started — probably — at the state capitol in Washington state.

What? You haven’t heard? Here’s the news, care of the Spokesman-Review:

OLYMPIA – The emotional saga over religious displays at Washington’s state Capitol grew more bizarre Wednesday, as a controversial Kansas group requested permission to put up a sign titled “Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell.”

The Westboro Baptist Church, which spreads its virulently anti-gay message by demonstrating at funerals and high-profile events, wants the sign posted near a Nativity scene and atheist sign at the Capitol. The sign claims that “God’s hate” is to blame for the weak economy, that Santa is a child molester, and that the deaths of U.S. troops are somehow the fault of Santa.

“Holy cow,” said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of General Administration, when e-mailed the text. “I guess we’ll consider it like all the other requests.”

No, believe it or not, there are no signs — yet — of prejudice against St. Nicholas (the ancient Christian saint from Myra) in this story. It may take time for Phelps and family to find that angle.

So what, you ask, is the actual news story that is buried under this stuff?

That’s where the “Christmas wars” roots show up. You see, this is another equal access story.

Once the state decides that its job is to sponsor forums about religious diversity, this is where things end up. Just for the record, I wish that churches and private organizations offered waves of real, undiluted Christmas displays as far as the eye can see and that states fled the generic holiday decorations business altogether. Don’t deck the city halls, people. Is anyone out there writing anything about that option?

But let’s return to “Jaws: The Christmas special.”

State officials say that after a lawsuit a couple of years ago to allow the Nativity scene, they cannot discriminate among holiday displays. …

Washington’s Capitol has been in the national spotlight for more than a week. Thousands of people from across the country have called the governor’s office over the state’s decision to allow the atheist sign next to the Nativity scene on the Statehouse’s third floor. A large evergreen “Holiday Tree” surrounded by gifts has been erected in the Capitol rotunda each December for decades.

The atheist sign was stolen last week, recovered hours later by state police, and reinstalled in its display case. Since then, religious groups have added signs critical of atheism. State officials ordered the displays roped off to protect them. Security cameras and a state trooper now watch over the competing displays.

Wait! Here comes the Flying Spaghetti Monster lawyers! And what about Festivus?

Actually, this is a pretty solid story. Trust me, I really feel for reporters that have to cover this. I know that it’s hard to offer the facts about the law in this kind of church-state circus. Meanwhile, please help me keep an eye open for the more serious follow-up reports. Sad to say, but this is a real story. Tragic, even.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    I feel so embarrassed that I couldn’t stop laughing, because I agree with you. This is tragic.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    I love Festivus. I even have a pole.

  • Bern

    “Holy cow” is right. :-) And I agree: NO religious (or anti-religious) decorations, signs, statements, statues, at government property sites during the holidays. Twinkly lights are OK: it’s dark in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year, and we could all use some cheering up–although they can’t be hung on evergreens because that implies an endorsement of paganism (originally).

    And churches and religious folks: go for broke on your properties, or not, as the spirit moves you.

    BTW I was dismayed that the link listed actually went to the Phelps site. A story about them, OK, but I regret inadvertently adding to this hate group’s click count.

  • Brian Walden

    I think with a little common sense we can still allow for a pluralism of religious displays. Here’s a few simple rules that might work:

    1) Make it clear that the purpose of the displays on government property is for celebrating holidays. Welcome groups to submit a display for a holiday they are celebrating, but not any time of year or to compete with other groups’ holidays.

    2) The purpose of displays is not to provide free government billboard space. Allow displays (Nativities, Menorah’s, festivus poles, etc.), don’t allow signs.

    3) Don’t put stuff from different groups right next to each other like they did in Washington. That just encourages childlike behavior. If there are multiple displays – put them in different areas that still have equal prominence.

    4) If we can’t act like adults, go Molly’s route and have no displays on government property.

  • Dave

    The Phelps clan and the Christmas wars were bound to come together. I pity the journalists who have to cover it, unless they enjoy train wrecks, and I agree that no religious displays belong on government property (the position, incidentally, of the ACLU and Americans United.)

    BTW it took the new GR site three days to find its way to my computer but I’m ba-a-a-ack. I like the new site; my Internet Explorer now covers the graphics with the text instead of the other way around.

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