At least four public attempts to censor the use of the term “Christmas” and the display of related decorations such as Christmas trees have been reported this year in the United States, specifically in New Hampshire, Virginia, New York and Tennessee.
Such censorship attempts occur annually at Christmas, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) told Baptist Press.
“Every year, we see several of these challenges pop up around the country. We see efforts to censor the inclusion of religious songs in school Christmas programs or to take down a nativity scene included in a Christmas display at the town hall,” ADF senior counsel David Cortman said. “Thus, every year, it is necessary for ADF and citizens across our nation to continue to take a stand for Christmas and to work to ensure that its religious origins are not white-washed from the celebrations.”
Pew Research photo by Matthew Roberts
Displays like this nativity scene and Christmas tree in the public square are protected by the U.S. Constitution, but draw objections from a minority of Americans each year.
In New Hampshire, the elementary School Administrative Unit 29 (SAU 29) required the sponsor of an annual community Christmas tree lighting to remove the word “Christmas” from flyers distributed at schools promoting the Dec. 6 event, recommending instead the use of the word “holiday,” the New Hampshire Union Leader reported. Superintendent Robert Malay apologized days later for offending event organizers, but did not amend the school policy.
Two weeks earlier, the Salem, Va., Veterans Affairs Medical Center banned the display of Christmas trees and the singing of religious Christmas carols in the center’s public spaces. After public outcry, the center amended the ban to allow Christmas trees and carols as long as other holidays were represented, including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, Fox News reported.
In New York, a Brooklyn principal in her first year on the job made headlines for apparently banning Santa Claus, religious symbols including stars and angels, The Pledge of Allegiance and Thanksgiving. But school officials told the NBC New York the principal had simply misinterpreted a school policy. The school stipulates that holiday symbols or decorations must reflect more than one belief or custom.
“We work to foster inclusive communities in our schools that welcome students and families, and celebrate the diverse values and traditions of all New Yorkers,” NBC New York quoted New York City Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “This principal continues to work closely with her school community to ensure PS 169 is an inclusive school, meet students’ and families’ needs, and celebrate the values that make her community and New York City great.”
ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco defended the free expression of Christmas in a Dec. 9 letter to SAU 29 board members and Malay, saying such censorship violates the U.S. Constitution “because it impermissibly singles out religious speech for unfavorable treatment.”
“It is firmly established that school officials may not suppress private speech simply because it is religious or contains a religious perspective,” Tedesco wrote in the letter. “Rather, the Constitution ‘affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.’”
Lawmakers have taken steps to protect the free expression of Christmas in the nation. Legislatures in at least two states, Texas and Tennessee, have passed what lawmakers call “Merry Christmas laws.” The 2013 Texas law proclaims a school district’s right to educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, allows students and school staff to exchange such traditional greetings as Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and happy holidays, and allows the display of such decorations as Christmas trees and nativities, as long as more than one religion is represented and a particular belief is not encouraged, the law states.
Such state laws help undergird the constitutional protections already in place and consistently affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Cortman said.
“These states’ laws work [to] counteract those efforts by raising awareness about and reinforcing the liberties already guaranteed in the Constitution,” he said. “Celebrating the religious origins of Christmas is not only perfectly constitutional, it has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, groups like the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and Freedom From Religion Foundation have had some success in wrongly convincing people that the religious aspects of Christmas must be censored.”
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado introduced a congressional resolution Dec. 11 “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate Christmas.” Lamborn’s resolution is cosponsored by 35 representatives from 27 states, and has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Lamborn introduced a similar resolution in 2014, noting in comments from the House floor that the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit against school officials for supporting student-led participation in the Operation Christmas Child outreach of Samaritan’s Purse and a Christian mission trip co-sponsored by Adventures in Missions and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The Colorado School District reached a settlement with the Humanists to refrain from encouraging student participation in Operation Christmas Child, the Patheos faith-based website has reported.
“According to a recent poll, 9 out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas,” Lamborn said in 2014. “Sadly, however, there is a troubling effort in America, by a vocal minority, to remove the symbols and traditions of Christmas from the public arena.”
In a statement on its website, the ADF clarifies seven questions regarding the celebration of Christmas in public schools. According to the ADF:
The U.S. Constitution protects the right of students to sing religious carols along with secular ones if the school “has a secular purpose for including the religious songs; for example, advancing students’ knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage;”
School officials are protected by law in referring to school break as a Christmas holiday;
Schools are protected in choosing religious days as legal school holidays;
Schools do not have to recognize a religious holiday simply because it coincides with a school holiday;
Teachers have the right to greet students with the words “Merry Christmas” without violating the teachers’ roles as “agents of the state”;
When schools teach courses on the Holy Bible, they can avoid violating the Constitution by connecting “the study of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus to a secular, educational purpose and root it in a greater study and understanding of history, literature, art, or culture;”
Schools may display the Christian nativity “for legitimate secular purposes, such as to celebrate the holiday and to depict the origins of the holiday.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)