THEIR VIEW: Write Santa, but call your lawyer

By The West Virginia Record | Dec 16, 2010


MORGANTOWN -- It's that wonderful time of year. You know, when America descends into arguing over Christmas decorations.

No, not yours. You can put up all the holy crosses, wise men figures, and manger scenes you want. However, Nativity scenes and religious references to the season on public property or in public settings prompt protests, political correctness and court fights.

In Philadelphia, the organizers of the annual "Christmas Village" initially said the signs had to avoid any religious references. Mayor Michael Nutter overruled that decision.

The mayor then played it safe when, at the tree lighting ceremony, said, "And let me say to all of you, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Day of the Three Kings. Let's have a wonderful holiday season."

In Ames, Iowa, the Christmas tree in the Ames High School cafeteria had to come down. The Tribune newspaper reported there had been "complaints from a high school employee and some parents."

The nine-foot tall Christmas tree in the lobby of the Chase Bank branch in Southlake, Texas, has been removed after several people complained they were offended by it. JPMorgan Chase issued a statement saying it wanted to make sure that decorations are "something everyone is comfortable with, regardless of how they celebrate the season."

Lawyers clean up all details, even at Christmas time, but even judges struggle to define when Christmas decorations are incidental references to the holiday or overt proselytizing by the state.

In 1984's Lynch v. Donnelly U.S. Supreme Court Decision, the Justices said that a Nativity scene that had been displayed by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island for more than 40 years was not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The court, in a 5-4 ruling, said the display was more a recognition of "the historical origins of this traditional event long (celebrated) as a National Holiday."

But in 1989 in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, the court, in another 5-4 decision, found that a crèche inside the courthouse was a violation. The majority said displaying the words, "Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ" was an endorsement of Christianity.

Then in 1993, the Ku Klux Klan went to court when the city of Columbus, Ohio refused the Klan's request to place an unattended cross on a public plaza during the Christmas season.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Klan's cross was "fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as a secular private expression."

And on it goes.

Christmas has evolved into a secular holiday as well as a religious one. Schools and businesses close, people get the day off and traditions are observed. The event and all that surrounds it is more important for a majority of the country than any other.

Observing the holiday with religious-themed decorations, music and activities on public property should be protected by the courts as an accommodation of religion that falls well short of violating the rights of non-believers.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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