Focus on the Family

Do You See What I See?

by Bruce Hausknecht, Esq.

John 3:16

Every year, as we approach Christmas, we hear of a new legal conflict over the display of Nativity scenes on local government property. Or we read about individuals who are forbidden from expressing religious sentiments at work. in school or in public places.  Secular organizations annually send threatening letters to cities, towns and schools claiming - albeit inaccurately - any recognition of the religious nature of the holiday violates the "separation of church and state." The false narrative has proliferated to the point many Christians are frightened into silence at Christmastime, thereby missing an important opportunity to present the Gospel message, which the world needs to hear. However, this annual obstruction does not have to continue. If public officials and concerned citizens become versed ina few, very basic facts about the U.S. Constitution and how it affects religious expression in the public square, confusion over public Christmas expressions of various kinds can be averted.

Back to Basics

The First Amendment has a clause dealing with religion, which has formed the basis for most of the Christmas conflicts: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" The first part of that clause - called the "Establishment Clause" - has been interpreted by the U. S. Supreme Court to prohibit the government from either endorsing religion or - and this is important - exhibiting hostility toward religion. Government can and should "accommodate" religious expression in the public square just like it does toward any other type of expressive activity.

To understand how this plays out in practice, we must look at Christmas expression in several arenas: government expression in its governing role; government-created space for individuals or groups to speak; and the peculiar situation of employee rights of expression in the workplace.

To sum up, the best way to think of Christmas in the public square is to think of it as a "fair and level" playing field for all types of seasonal expression, where religious expression enjoys the same rights as secular expressions. Government entities should carefully observe the constitutional requirements before including religious elements in their seasonal displays; however, there's plenty of legal room for them to participate as well.