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:

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Concerning plastic reindeer and ‘Merry Christmas’ rules


What happened to saying “Merry Christmas”? Is the move to saying “Happy Holidays” instead a good thing?


On the hit CBS-TV drama “The Good Wife” we’re in the offices of Illinois’ governor-elect as his top aide scans a hallway and angrily barks a Yuletide order: “Holiday decorations! Not Jesus! Holiday!” Bruce Tinsley’s satirical comic strip “Mallard Fillmore” carries this TV announcement: “The following Christmas special actually mentions Christianity. Viewer discretion is advised.” Another “Mallard” strip has a mother reporting that her son’s school phoned with a complaint: “He just isn’t getting into the Winter Solstice pageant spirit.”

Speaking of which, the Episcopal Church’s New York City cathedral will honor non-Christian Americans and pre-Christian Europeans with its annual “Winter Solstice Celebration” (reserved seats $90), broadcast by National Public Radio. Potential attendees are assured that this “holiday alternative” is “secular” and “a contemporary take on ancient solstice rituals, when people felt a calling to come together on the longest night of the year to welcome the return of the sun.” Days later, the cathedral will also welcome the Son.

‘Tis the season of the “war on Christmas” and the war on the “war,” and the war on the war on the “war.”

Regarding Mary’s specific query, sensible person-to-person etiquette seems to advise saying “Merry Christmas” to religious Christians, “Happy Hanukkah” to religious Jews (though the two holidays didn’t coincide this year), and “Happy Holidays” to adherents of other faiths, and touchy secularists, and people whose religious sensitivities are unknown. That’s the easy part. But clever TV scripts and cartoons indicate the issue is far broader in an increasingly secularized and multicultural America.

Church leaders, whether conservative or liberal, generally express less angst about American society downplaying Christmas than cultural conservatives like Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. For years he has complained that stores and schools and government agencies appease “secular progressives” by shunning “Merry Christmas” and everything else related to the C-word. Enlisting in the cause is former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in her new book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. She asserts that the “war” is “the tip of the spear in the larger battle to secularize our culture.”

Liberal and secular folks on the opposite side think “Happy Holidays” best suits American pluralism and pooh-pooh the war as trivial or, as expressed by New York Times pundit Gail Collins, an “imaginary” problem that’s exploited to foment “seasonal victimhood.” Tell that to public school music teachers in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Wausau, Wisconsin, and Bordentown, New Jersey; Anno Domini 2013. School administrators in all three towns scrapped traditional Christmas carols at December concerts but protests then forced them to back down.

The conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, an active force in these disputes, sent 13,000 letters informing public schools that “every federal court that has examined the issue has determined that including Christmas carols and other religious music in school choir programs fully complies with” the Constitution’s ban on government “establishment of religion.” A notable 2007 accord on religion in public schools, endorsed by a wide range of educational and religious organizations, approves recognition of religious holidays that fulfills a secular educational purpose, so long as religious celebrations are avoided. (Click here for the .pdf)

What about those public Christmas tree displays?

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Accurate Holiday wars update from Santa Monica!

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Oh my! We may have a Nativity Lent miracle on our hands!

Trust me that I have read enough horrible “Christmas wars” stories in my journalistic life to recognize a decently reported one when I see it. I think the following Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing Santa Monica Nativity scene battles includes a few paragraphs of material — from a qualified, informed source — that make all the difference.

First, here is the sad, sad drama that is playing out once again:

Santa Monica may bar Nativity and other seasonal displays in public spaces, a federal judge tentatively ruled Monday.

In a case that has drawn national attention, Judge Audrey B. Collins of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles denied a church coalition’s request that the court require the city to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed in Palisades Park this year, as it has for nearly 60 years.

“The atheists won on this,” said William J. Becker Jr., an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Assn. Standing in front of TV news cameras outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, Becker predicted that the court on Dec. 3 would also grant the city’s request that his group’s lawsuit be dismissed.

That likely outcome, he said, marked “the erosion of 1st Amendment liberty for religious speech.” He compared the city to Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus’ trial, saying: “It’s a shame about Christmas. Pontius Pilate was exactly the same kind of administrator.”

Atheist groups praised the judge’s ruling as an example of the upholding of the separation of church and state.

So far, so predictable.

The key, of course, is that officials of the state — under “equal access” principles firmed up back in the 1990s by a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives — have one of two options.

First, they can throw the public spaces open to snarky holiday chaos with all comers treated equally. This gives you the “Pastafarian religion” exhibit, complete with the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” sitting next to a traditional Christian Nativity scene. Then again, officials can elect to treat all faiths and interest groups equally by denying all requests for exhibitions of this kind. Legally, the state has to go to one extreme or the other, thus avoiding “viewpoint discrimination.”

Lo and behold, the Times team found someone, and even quoted them, who (a) is not connected with either warring camp and (b) actually knows something about the laws that are in play.

Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, called Collins’ decision “consistent with other rulings.”

“It’s all or nothing in these cases,” he said. “If the government opens up and creates a limited forum, it can’t practice viewpoint discrimination. But it can say, well, we’re not going to have any. … There has to be a level playing field in the public sphere.”

So, for good and for ill, that is the state of church-state affairs at this point in time. You don’t have to like it to note that this newspaper report managed to get the crucial legal facts into the story. All too often, journalists just let the Christians shout at the atheists and the atheists shout at the Christians and that’s that.

This story gives us some of the shouting, of course, such as:

Since 1953, the coalition each December has erected a tableau of scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. … To keep things fair and legal, the city held a lottery to parcel out slots. Atheists won 18 of 21 spaces. A Jewish group won another. The Nativity story that traditionally took up 14 displays was jammed into two.

A flap ensued. Vandals ripped down a banner the Freedom From Religion Foundation had hung at the park. The banner began: “At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail.”

Last June, concerned that the lottery would become increasingly costly because of the rising tensions, the City Council voted to ban all private, unattended displays in city parks. The city has cited other reasons for the prohibition, including damage to the park’s turf and some residents’ statements that they would prefer unobstructed ocean views to seasonal displays.

Tragically, this is one of those cases in which the most calm, logical and, dare I say, reverent option is silence. Then again, loyal GetReligion readers already know where I stand on these matters. Last year I summed up my views in three simple thoughts. Here they are again, cleaned up a bit:

(1) I, personally, have never understood why so many religious believers think it is so important to have a creche on the lawn of their local government’s secular headquarters.

(2) Then again, I’ve never understood why some religious believers think it is a victory for Christians to go to court and argue that a Nativity Scene is not really religious and, thus, is a mere cultural symbol that belongs on tax-funded land. Since when is that a victory for traditional faith?

(3) In a perfect world, again in my opinion, every church in town would — if their leaders choose to do so — put up their own creches and the courthouse lawn would not be forced by choirs of lawyers to host warring armies of believers, unbelievers and other tense folks from various camps in between.

So once again, just to be clear, I am praising the Times for actually quoting an authoritative voice that knew enough about church-state law to realize that Santa Monica has not, in this case, banned Christmas. Instead, this story has noted that the government’s leaders have chosen to cease being entangled in Holiday red tape and, well, spaghetti.