Really? Editors who don’t know about the ‘reindeer rules’?

Sorry about this, folks, but we need to take a quick glance back at a lingering “Christmas wars” story from 2013.

You would think, by this time, that everyone within a light year or two of a newsroom and/or public courthouse would have heard of the whole “reindeer rules” battles linked to public officials allowing the erection of Christmas creches (or Menorahs) on public property. If you want a quick refresher on some related issues, check out this recent post from our resident Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling.

As always, let me state right up front that — on the creche issue itself — I have no idea why so many religious people want to put plastic versions of the symbols of their faith on the lawns of the secular sanctuaries where you have to go to fight about traffic tickets, to have a secular marriage rite, etc., etc. If creches are all that important, why not have every single church in town put one up, along with waves of public symbolism on patches of private property, and save all of the lawyer fees for charitable use?

But back to the public-square issue and the resulting journalism issues. As I wrote about a decade ago:

We live in an age in which government officials — local, state and national — are wrestling with holiday trees, menorahs, creches, angels, ears of corn, Santa statues, plastic snowmen and a host of other secular and sacred objects that church-state partisans keep dragging into the public square. …

There are few guidelines carved in stone. The court did establish what many activists call the “reindeer rules” that allow displays of religious symbols on public property as long as they are surrounded by other symbols, which are usually borrowed from pop culture.

You remember that public Christmas display a few years ago that included, among other mocking options, the mannequin arrangement featuring “the chosen one,” Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars”? What a lovely victory for faith.

Anyway, it does not appear that the reality of the church-state era symbolized by the “reindeer rules” has made it to The Baxter Bulletin, based on the following example of its follow-up coverage of a recent Christmas wars clash in Mountain Home, Ark.

This is all pretty normal stuff, with predictable warriors, only there are some glaring journalism holes to fill:

Baxter County, the city of Mountain Home and a local law firm all are in a Washington D.C. law firm’s crosshairs for their role in the erection of a Christmas nativity scene, or crèche, on the courthouse lawn.

A letter dated Jan. 1 from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center is copied to Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass, Mountain Home Mayor David Osmon and Mountain Home attorney F.S. “Rick” Spencer. The letter is written on behalf of a Baxter County resident who has alerted Appignani Humanist Legal Center to the county’s crèche, which is prominently displayed on the front lawn of the Baxter County Courthouse, according to Monica Miller, the author of the letter for the legal center.

“For about 15 years, the county has featured an exclusively Christian nativity scene in front of its courthouse during the holiday season. Religious (specifically Christian) elements overwhelmingly dominate the display, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Miller wrote.

Like I said, very predictable. It’s toward the end of the story that things get really weird.

Pendergrass said … Baxter County is apparently among a declining number of counties that permit nativity scene displays on publicly-owned property. County personnel were not involved in erecting or maintaining the display, the judge said.

The judge said he rejected a citizen request for the display of a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner on the courthouse grounds because he believed making the courthouse available for any and all requests for occasional exhibits would result in “hundreds” of displays.

Hundreds of displays? Rulings promoting an equal-access agenda do not require hundreds, but they do require a variety of displays reflecting a pluralistic culture. This is very old stuff.

This story, however, is completely silent on the actual laws governing the local controversy that is allegedly being covered. It doesn’t really matter if local officials, and editors, are ready to embrace the “reindeer rules” era. The simple fact of the matter is that local citizens cannot understand this controversy without a minimal amount of factual material covering the equal-access laws that are in play.

Come on. All you have to do is run an online search containing the sadly predictable terms “Christmas wars,” “reindeer” and “creche” and the result is page after page of relevant material and contact points. Just do it.

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.


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