Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Friends And Foes of Christmas

The Most Unnecessary Holy War

Perennial politician Jerry "Grinch" Falwell, is always clever at reducing the church to a political base for his own advancement. This year, Falwell has called for a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign." Next we can expect a video game called "Battlefield Christmas"? Christian writer James Watkins rightly notes that Falwell is "launching a holy war" (in Arabic that translates "jihad") for a season when certain angels proclaimed "peace on earth."

To give Falwell his due, there is a kernel of truth at the heart of this misbegotten nonsense. Falwell calls on people of faith to oppose various attempts to "intimidate school and government officials by spreading misinformation about Christmas. Celebrating Christmas is constitutional!” Indeed it is. (If you want details, check out What's Your Problem? It's Christmas! ). That is so well established under existing Supreme Court decisions, one wonders why it provokes any controversy.

In fact, we should be more specific about who has what constitutional right to celebrate Christmas. Individuals and families have an unchallenged right to celebrate Christmas any way they choose. That is called free speech, free expression, free exercise of religion. Neither congress nor any state may pass a law to prohibit any of the above. Neither may the courts. If several families want to get together for a communal celebration, that is called freedom of association. The only limitation is, none of us can break a law, by committing murder, robbery, trespass, assault, or creating a public nuisance (like blaring carols over a sound system at 80 decibels in a residential neighborhood), in the name of celebrating Christmas.

Churches have an undoubted right to celebrate Christmas also. This is called freedom of religion, freedom of speech, free expression, freedom of association. This right includes putting up Christmas displays on church property, which may be visible for hundreds of yards, or even for miles. The fact that some atheist may be offended is legally irrelevant.

Businesses have a right to observe or not observe any holiday. That is basically the right to advertise your wares in whatever language you choose. There are some grinches of the anti-religious variety who consider it inappropriate for a business to observe a religious holiday. These grinches are entitled to their opinion, but it has no legal force at all. "Establishment of religion" is indeed prohibited by the First Amendment, but "Establishment" is something done by government, not by private businesses. The law insists that a commercial enterprise must serve all customers, without regard to religion, but it doesn't regulate what a business puts up in its windows for which holidays.

Falwell apparently wants Christians to target businesses that do not celebrate Christmas. That is his constitutional right, as a matter of free speech, and the right of any individual who chooses to follow him, (as distinct from those who choose to follow Him). Reportedly, Target Stores prohibits employees from wishing customers "Merry Christmas." That is silly. It may be good for business, it may be bad for business, it may have no impact on business. But it is Target's choice. If enough customers turn away from Target at Falwell's call, Target may revise their policy. I don't shop at Target, so I won't have any impact either way. Target is denied by law the authority to require employees to say "Merry Christmas," if an employee has religious objections to doing so.

Most Americans have enough sense and courtesy to be pleased when a member of any faith greets any other person in the name of a holiday. If the well-wisher is Jewish, "Happy Hannukah" is a compliment, whether expressed to a fellow Jew or to anyone else. Out of the mouth of a Christian, "Merry Christmas" is as good as "have a nice day," whether the person who hears the greeting is a Christian, a Buddhist, an atheist, or a pagan. And yes, Christians should accept "Happy Solstice" as a greeting of good will, and reply "Merry Christmas." Its not competitive, it is from the heart, of the person speaking.

There isn't much room left in the law for nuisance litigation about this stuff by self-righteous grinches. Check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation's web page Other Court Challenges. You will find that these enemies of religious freedom, implacable foes of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, have abandoned any attempt to file cases in the courts of Wisconsin, the state where FFRF headquarters are located. Why? Because some years ago, they lost a case over the display of a manger scene in a public park in the city of Waunakee. (Awwwwww...) They have also lost their Ten Commandments litigation, since the last time the web site was updated.

There are two key cases decided many years ago by the Supreme Court of the United States, which clear the way for federal, state and local governments to join in and recognize that large numbers of Americans are indeed celebrating Christmas. One case is Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668. The Supreme Court allowed a city-sponsored downtown display that included a manger scene, Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, and a banner reading "Season's Greetings," in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This is not an "Establishment of religion" by the city. The other is Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573. The court ruled that a manger scene sponsored by a religious organization in the main front stairway of the county building is unacceptable, because it amounts to the county expressing preference for a specific religion, and a specific denomination, over all others. But the Pittsburgh city display of a tree, a menorah, and a star, was perfectly acceptable, and most likely could have included a manger scene also.

Since this is all so well established, why is it that Falwell finds it necessary to whip up a holy war? Maybe his empire just needed a good controversy for a fundraising letter? Spiritually, Falwell has made Our Father's House into a den of thieves. Constitutionally, he presses for the church to embrace the profane hands of the civil magistrate, which James Madison called "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."

Churches in the Denver, Colorado area showed a better way last year. The city and local businesses were sponsoring a very secular tinselly Christmas parade. A number of churches simply exercised their undoubted constitutional right to walk peacefully downtown singing Christmas carols, offering free hot chocolate, and passing out calendars of holiday worship services to anyone who wanted one. That is sharing the love of Jesus, expressing peace on earth, good will toward men, with an open invitation to salvation. It requires no campaign, no fundraising letters, no friends or foes, just Christians doing what Christians do. All well, no Fall.

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