The Christmas season is approaching, which means that those damned atheists are plotting to deny children their god-given right to tell their classmates about the birthday of Our Lord and Savior. And your kids' teacher might be one of them. But people are fighting back, wouldn't you know.
, a legal defense firm associated with Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the Christian Educators Association International
have announced they're going to "stop the Grinch from stealing Christmas." Liberty Counsel has produced a "Christmas Memo" on Christians' constitutional rights regarding the holiday, which you can download as a PDF here
. It outlines the legalities of displays on public property and in schools. The avowed subject of the Memo is Christmas, but it goes beyond nativity scenes and "Silent Night." Much of the Memo outlines court-tested methods of introducing religious subjects--and taking students to churches--throughout the school year.
On October 17, Liberty Counsel issued a press release
announcing its annual "Friend or Foe" Christmas campaign
. They have had the campaign for several years, but this year they are joining forces with the Christian Educators Association International. Liberty Counsel president and general counsel Mathew D. Staver said, "With a cavalry of thousands of public school teachers and administrators joining forces with hundreds of religious liberty attorneys, we intend to stop the Grinch from stealing Christmas. We will be the friend of government officials who do the right thing, and the foe of those who don't." (Because, after all, drawing up lists of friends and enemies is part of the Christmas spirit.)
Liberty Counsel's press release explains the situation: "In the past few years, [public school] students have been suspended for distributing candy canes with an attached card describing the Christian celebration of Christmas. Students have been told they may not say "Merry Christmas," may not sing Christian Christmas carols, or may not wear red and green.
" (My emphasis.) (No doubt these anecdotal cases, which some might call "suspect," can be fully documented and are representative of secular attitudes throughout the country.)
In a news bulletin
on the Focus on the Family
website, Staver was quoted as saying, "We are putting America on notice that we will defend Christmas
and we will not only provide the education necessary, but we will also go to court when necessary as well against any official, government official, that tries to censor Christmas." (My emphasis.)
That's right America! Sit up straight! You're on notice! We're defending Christmas, that neglected holiday! It's not going to be ignored and forgotten anymore!
True, it's a federal holiday. True, you cannot escape tinny Christmas songs anytime after Thanksgiving. True, the supermarkets started selling Christmas stuff in early October. That doesn't negate the fact that Christmas is UNDER ATTACK
Okay. Enough snark.
We ought to pay attention to this campaign for at least three reasons.
FIRST, we do not want anyone's constitutional rights denied.
SECOND, it is my sneaking suspicion that some extreme and militant Christians are always looking for fights about stuff like this. Let's just not let them get into it.
Some of the militant types seem to have a persecution complex. They want to look like the victim and even more they want a chance to portray secular society as bigoted and repressive. (Note these days how ecstatic they are at the opportunity to call scientists "closed-minded" for not wanting Intelligent Design discussed in biology classes.)
THIRD, there's the fact that the Christmas Memo produced by Liberty Counsel looks like a Trojan Horse
Trojan Horse questions later; first let's talk crèches.
The stated purpose of the "Friend or Foe" campaign is to educate people about what is and is not constitutional regarding Christmas displays and celebrations, in the public square and in schools. Or, some might say the Memo outlines all the ways Christians can constitutionally shove their religion in the faces of those who don't believe in it.
Indeed, in places the Memo doesn't just say what is or isn't legal, but explicitly it advises readers they can include a lot of religious elements without breaking the law. "A [public school] choral performance may include religious songs. Indeed, the majority of the songs may be religious so long as the performance also includes secular holiday songs" (p. 6).
Unless I've misread the document, there seems to be one inconsistency in the Memo over whether or not publicly sponsored displays on public land can contain only
religious symbols, without secular symbols. Perhaps a lawyer out there in the blogosphere can straighten it out.
THE RULES FOR PUBLIC AND PRIVATE DISPLAYS
Publicly sponsored displays on public property can have religious symbols (such as a nativity scene) and should "generally" also have secular symbols (e.g. Santa Claus, reindeer, Christmas trees).
(A footnote says that "the absence of a secular symbol does not mean the religious symbol is unconstitutional" [p. 1, n. 1]. The Memo does not elaborate on this and seems to contradict itself in the conclusion, where it says, "Publicly sponsored nativity scenes on public property are constitutional so long as there is a secular symbol of the holiday in the general context" [p. 6]. It is my guess that the footnote refers to unusual cases such as a purely religious display that itself has some historical significance that would be compromised by sticking a reindeer in the middle of it.)
Privately sponsored displays can be on public property (public parks are given as an example where you can put up a private display). Private displays do not have to have any secular symbols. A sign announcing that it is a privately sponsored display can be put up, but is not necessary.
(The Memo doesn't suggest it, but if I were a militant Christian with a persecution complex, I'd put up something big and Jesusy in the park with no private-display sign, then just sit back and wait for some godless atheist to complain.)
CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS IN SCHOOLS
The basic rule for classroom decorations, holiday music programs, literature, drama, etc. should be "mix the secular and the sacred" (p. 3).
Unfortunately, the Memo also says, "A nativity scene in the classroom follows the same guidelines as a publicly sponsored nativity scene on public property" (p. 3), which may get us back in the inconsistency described above.
Finally, public school students may hand out Christmas cards at school at any time outside of class-time; they may say "Merry Christmas"; and they may wear clothes with religious statements or symbols on them.
THE TROJAN HORSE
On the surface, the Christmas Memo is convenient. It is natural for teachers to want to know the rules about Christmas. No one wants kids in tears, parents furious, and the media frothing at the mouth. So here is a handy 6-page downloadable PDF about the rules for Christmas (I presume Liberty Counsel got the legal details correct). It explains when it's okay for kids to give each other cards and under what circumstances the choir may sing "Away in the Manger."
What is disturbing about the Memo is that its discussion of schools is over four times longer than the discussion of displays in public places and it goes far beyond Christmas itself.
The guidelines listed above for celebrating the holiday in schools are pretty straightforward. Indeed, on page 3 the Memo describes them as "simple" and sums them up in 5 words: "mix the sacred and the secular." But it would seem that, in the name of a careful and detailed exploration of this "simple" situation, Liberty Counsel felt the need to continue for pages describing court cases in which religious material in regular coursework and in extracurricular activities was determined to be legal.
If I were a cynic, I might say Liberty Counsel and the Christian Educators Association International (with a plug from Focus on the Family and, no doubt, other Christian groups) were using Christmas as a Trojan Horse to encourage the discussion of religion (and naturally Christianity in particular) in other contexts at public schools. My husband, who isn't coy about his cynicism, calls it "Christmas as a Wedge Issue."
The Memo cautions teachers that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment applies to them as state employees, but it also reminds them of their rights. "Teachers do not lose their rights to free speech and freedom of religion simply because they are employees of the state" (p. 2).
The Memo describes students' rights as well. The Constitution protects their right to free speech and free exercise of religion on public school campuses, which includes their right to distribute flyers and literature. The Memo quotes Paulsen v. County of Nassau: "From the time of the founding of our nation, the distribution of written material has been an essential weapon
in the defense of liberty" (p. 5, my emphasis). (Weapon? We're not militant, are we?) On the subject of choral performances, the Memo advises readers that "if the students select their own songs independent of the direction of school officials, then there is no requirement that the songs include secular numbers" (p. 6).
Focus on the Family's newsletter about the "Friend or Foe" campaign said the over 8,000 members of the Christian Educational Association International were going to receive this information. Finn Laursen, the group's Executive Director, said "our teachers are really on the ground floor and in the past we have put information out. But now, this year, in working with Liberty Counsel, we'll be able to have the legal arm right there if it needs to be flexed."
RELIGION IN SCHOOLS OUTSIDE OF CHRISTMAS
In Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District, a federal court held that a public high school choir's adoption of the song, The Lord Bless You and Keep You, as its theme song did not violate the Establishment Clause and was constitutional. In Doe, the song was sung every Friday during practice, at the end of some performances and choral competitions, and on the bus to and from performances, which the students were required to sing. (p. 4)
The Memo quotes a paragraph from another legal decision that described how a school choir's music should be chosen for educational reasons, regardless of whether the music comes from a religious or a secular background. That decision went on to state there are reasons why public school choirs should be allowed to perform in churches, since a church might have better acoustics than the school auditorium and it might give the choir a chance to be heard by more of the public. It's true that churches sometimes have good acoustics, and that the acoustics in the average school auditorium is often better suited for magic shows. But in the paragraph that the Memo quotes from this legal decision, there is only one line that it sets in italics: "Plausible secular reasons also exist for performing school choir concerts in churches and other venues associated with religious institutions."
I could hear Liberty Counsel telling choir teachers: "You can do it. It's legal. You can take them to sing in a church." There is no emphasis on finding a venue for your choir that has great acoustics. No. They emphasize: "it's legal to take them to church."
Outside of issues involving school choirs, the Memo says, "Teachers may objectively overview religion as long as the overview is consistent with the subject matter being taught" (pp. 2-3), and it quotes a legal case in a note that explains that a "reenactment of the Last Supper or a Passover dinner might be permissible if presented for historical or cultural purposes" (p. 3, n. 9). It goes on to state that "No subject can be thoroughly taught without some discussion of religion" (p. 3). This is buttressed by a note citing the vast influence of "paganism, Judaism, Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) and other faiths" on culture (p. 3, n. 12).
It is obviously true that religions have had enormous influence and that teaching about that influence is crucial to a complete understanding of history and culture. But I'm wary when this information comes from a group that says it "advances faith by encouraging" . . . "all believers to proactively proclaim Christ
in the marketplace, schoolhouse, and public square." I'm afraid that spreading the Gospel of Jesus may be more important to some of them than the objective teaching of the role of religion in history and culture.
In our hyper-litigious society, with inflammatory stories being spread about children not being allowed to say "Merry Christmas" to each other, a lot of teachers and schools might appreciate a convenient Memo produced by a law firm that clearly (or mostly clearly) describes the laws regarding religious holidays. I believe Liberty Counsel and other groups are both promoting this fear and using the situation to advise Christian teachers how far they can legally promote their religion both at Christmas and year-round, if they follow the rules.