A poster of a Peanuts character with a Bible verse, a cross on a town Christmas tree and even the word “holiday” are among the latest battlegrounds in the so-called war against Christmas.
Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines told Baptist Press this year’s flurry of attacks on public expressions of Christmas highlight the need to safeguard religious liberty.
“Christians are not the only people in America,” said Gaines, pastor of Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn. “But we should have the same rights as everyone else,” including the right to “emphasize Christ” in “the public arena.”
Christmas, Gaines noted, “is about Jesus Christ. And I can’t even imagine the pushback many people would have if people tried to come against Islamic holy days like Ramadan or Jewish holy days.”
Linus’ verse banned
In central Texas, a middle school principal ordered a nurse’s aide to remove the text of Luke 2:11 from a handmade poster of the blanket-toting Peanuts character Linus. The verse is part of a passage Linus famously recites in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The Killeen (Texas) Independent School District voted to support the principal’s action Dec. 13, according to KWTX television in Waco, Texas.
District officials said in a statement earlier in December that “employees are free to celebrate the Christmas and holiday season in the manner of their choosing. However, employees are not permitted to impose their personal beliefs on students.”
The conservative legal organization Texas Values filed a lawsuit Dec. 15 on behalf of the nurse’s aide, Dedra Shannon of Charles Patterson Middle School. That same day, a Bell County state district judge issued a temporary injunction granting Shannon permission to display the poster as long as it included the words “Ms. Shannon’s Christmas Message” in letters as large as those of the Bible verse.
Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values and legal counsel for Shannon, said in a statement, “Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ like a court victory for religious freedom in December. Ms. Shannon is a brave and faithful woman that we are honored to represent.”
Texas attorney general Ken Paxton intervened in the case Dec. 15, filing a motion seeking the temporary injunction. He also sent a letter to the school district Dec. 13, arguing that fears the poster violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause “stem from an incorrect reading of the law.”
ACLU targets cross
Knightstown, Ind., town officials removed a cross from atop a Christmas tree in the town square – where it has been displayed the past four years – after the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit seeking to have it removed, USA Today reported Dec. 13. The town anticipated losing what could have been a “costly lawsuit,” according to USA Today.
The town council said in a Facebook post it removed the cross “with great regret and sadness” and expected to approve a resolution Dec. 15 pledging to “not return the cross to the tree.”
However, after what Fox 59 television of Indianapolis described as “a lengthy and emotional meeting,” the council tabled its proposal to ban religious symbols on public property.
A representative of the Christian Legal Association told Fox 59 the town and the ACLU would work together to negotiate a display that includes the cross.
The ACLU’s legal complaint states, “The cross is the best known symbol of Christianity and Knightstown’s prominent display of this symbol represents an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
‘Happy holidays’ offends
At Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, a university news release offering tips for seasonal office parties noted a professor’s recommendation to avoid using the word “holiday” as a secular alternative to “Christmas” because it still “connotes religious tradition and may not apply to all employees.”
According to the higher education watchdog group Campus Reform, the news release also included a suggestion to avoid “any religious symbolism” at parties “such as images of Santa Claus, evergreen trees, or red-nosed reindeer.” Snowflakes and snowmen were billed as acceptable party decorations.
The news release was reported by multiple media outlets but as of Dec. 16 it no longer appears on TWU’s website.
TWU posted a statement Dec. 15 noting “media coverage concerns” about the original release and stating, “One story in [a] ‘holiday tips’ package included suggestions from a Texas Woman’s University faculty member on possible alternatives to a traditional office holiday party. The story noted that employers may face challenges when planning a party that appropriately recognizes all faiths and backgrounds, and the article provided ideas on how employers can host gatherings that make all employees feel included.
“We apologize for any concerns that this article may have caused our alumni and others,” the statement continued. “And we would like to assure everyone that Texas Woman’s University believes all people should be able to enjoy and celebrate Christmas and all other religious traditions.”
Choirs barred from ‘nativity celebration’
In North Carolina, choirs from Wake County public schools have been barred by district officials from continuing an annual tradition of performances at the Apex Christmas Nativity Celebration hosted by a local Mormon group.
The event features hundreds of nativity scenes from around the world and is attended by community members, according to Raleigh’s News & Observer. Public school choirs have been performing at the event for at least 13 years, Fox News reported.
But district officials decided choir participation posed a legal risk after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation flagged a YouTube video of a Mormon official calling the event “a wonderful opportunity for you to bear testimony of Christ to your friends,” the News & Observer reported.
Wake County schools spokesman Tim Simmons told the News & Observer, “No one was particularly happy with the outcome of this. Some schools had been participating for several years.”
Gaines noted that followers of Jesus, like all Americans, “shouldn’t just have freedom of worship. We should have freedom of religion.”
“That means we can practice in the open marketplace in a very polite way. We don’t want to be arrogant, and we don’t want to be abrasive. But at the same time, we need to be able to honestly declare our faith in the open market just like anyone else,” Gaines said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)