Is it legal to celebrate Christmas in public?


It doesn’t take much to rile up an American citizen these days. Even the happy season of Christmas causes serious dissent. At the heart of the matter is one question: As Christians across the nation prepare one of the holiest days on the calendar, are they violating the constitutional rights of others?

Nativity scenes v. the Establishment Clause

Americans love to debate the First Amendment. 224 years later, we continue to analyze its intent. Freedom of religion, as we call it, means something different to every citizen. Christmas, a religious holiday, exacerbates these differences. Towns erect nativity scenes in public places or on government property. Some say freedom of religion permits this sacred tradition; others say the very same freedom prohibits such presentations.

The nation’s most recent Christmas “tradition” is less about religion-themed Christmas displays, and more about how those displays violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And while legal action has forced some localities to remove those exhibits, a December 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that most Americans favor allowing nativity scenes on government property.

How Santa can help

The same survey found that 44 percent of U.S. adults say that Christian symbols should be allowed even if they are not accompanied by symbols from other faiths, and another 28 percent say Christian symbols should be permitted as long as they are accompanied by symbols of other religions.

In the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly, a Rhode Island court ruled that a nativity scene in a shopping district did not violate the First Amendment because it was displayed alongside secular Christmas symbols like Santa Claus and his reindeer. The decision is known now as the “reindeer rule.”

Likewise, with County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989), the Supreme Court found that a stand-alone nativity scene inside a Pittsburgh courthouse was unconstitutional but a Hanukkah menorah that was displayed alongside a secular Christmas tree was not. Subsequent lower-court cases have arrived at varying decisions based on factors ranging from a display’s location to the religious makeup of the community.

Christmas is all about the kids

The nation’s favorite Christian holiday was always evident in public schools. Nowadays, however, “Christmas parties” and “Christmas break” are officially referred to as “winter” events. This language is designed to be more politically correct, so as to not offend or infringe upon the constitutional rights of any student, teacher, or staff.

Many Christians, however, find such rules to be too stringent. The Word Out is an online forum that addresses current events and public policy from a Christian perspective. On the site, it challenges current “myths” about recognizing Christmas in public schools:

Myth: It is unconstitutional for school officials to refer to the winter break as a “Christmas holiday.”

Fact: Congress has proclaimed Christmas to be a legal public holiday, and the Supreme Court has acknowledged the nation’s long-standing recognition of holidays with religious significance.

Myth: Public school students may not sing religious Christmas carols.

Fact: Students may sing religious Christmas songs if the school has a secular purpose for initiating religious expression (such as advancing knowledge of religious heritage).

Myth: Public schools must recognize all religious holidays if they recognize Christmas.

Fact: A school that has a holiday coinciding with a religious holiday must do so for secular purposes, but the school does not have a legal duty to recognize every other religious holiday.

Myth: Public schools can ban teachers and students from saying “Merry Christmas.”

Fact: In 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court ruled that teachers and students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. Saying a commonly used December greeting, such as “Merry Christmas,” does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Myth: Public schools cannot teach the religious origins of Christmas with biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Fact: In Stone v. Graham (1980), the Supreme Court stated that the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like. And what better time to teach about the birth of Jesus than near Christmas?

Ultimately, what makes America great is the freedom we have to debate our constitutional rights—at Christmas or any time throughout the year.

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