ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — The actual birth of Jesus Christ may have been an obscure event lacking human fanfare. However, depictions of the first Christmas in the form of nativity scenes on public venues seem to draw lots of attention these days, especially from groups particularly antagonistic toward Christianity.
One group that seems to take special umbrage to the placement of mangers on government property is the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A nonprofit group based in Wisconsin, FFRF recently acted on behalf of an anonymous East Texas resident who complained about a nativity scene displayed on the courthouse lawn in Henderson County.
In a letter to county officials, FFRF indicated the nativity placed on government property represented an “endorsement” of religion and forced “taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship.” The group contends the presence of the manger on county property is a violation of the First Amendment.
“It [the nativity] sends a message of intimidation and exclusion to non-Christians and non-believers this time of year,” FFRF co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor said. She said she’s not planning to file a lawsuit, but will not hesitate to do so if Henderson County does not comply with her request. FFRF has filed suit in the past in similar situations.
The FFRF website indicates the organization “works to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state. The Foundation is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and skeptics) with over 17,000 members.”
While FFRF has every right to exist and to promote its views and strive to educate the public on the same, it would help if the group had a better understanding of what is known as the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The aforementioned clauses are stated in clear, succinct language. Taken together they state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
The Supreme Court articulated the clear understanding of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses in Everson v. Board of Education. The 1947 case dealt with a tax-funded school district that provided reimbursement to parents of both public- and private-schooled children taking the public transportation system to school.
The court, in a 5-4 decision, held that the reimbursements were constitutional because they were offered to all students regardless of religion and because the payments were made to parents and not any religious institution.
Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion and did not mince any words in regard to the court’s understanding of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. Black wrote:
“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion….'”
Rather simple, isn’t it? The government cannot enact a law that says you must give allegiance to a specific religion. Neither can the state pass legislation that says you can’t pursue a particular religion. That’s it.
There are three schools of thought concerning the application of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. One is a separatist position held by groups like the FFRF. Those holding this view believe there should be zero religious expression on government venues. Thus, they oppose any and all nativity scenes on public property, period.
Another view is known by some as the acknowledgment position. Those who adhere to this perspective believe the government should initiate and even underwrite religious expression. Hence, these folks are not only in favor of mangers on public property, they would have the government fund the display.
I believe both of the aforementioned positions are misguided and, in fact, wrong. A third school of thought is the accommodation position. This view allows for individuals to express or freely exercise their religion on public property.
The accommodation position allows for nativity scenes to be displayed on public property so long as they are privately funded. Additionally, all religious groups must be welcome to display symbols of faith.
In spite of what the Freedom From Religion Foundation believes, the nativity on the county courthouse in East Texas in no way represents a law respecting an establishment of religion. Reports indicate the display is privately funded, thus in my view it is nothing more than an individual or group freely exercising their religion.
The claim by FFRF that the presence of the nativity on the Henderson County courthouse lawn represents a message of intimidation and exclusion to non-Christians and non-believers this time of year is an overreaction and an attempt to create victims where there are none.
The actual birth of Jesus, according to the Bible, went mostly unnoticed. Some shepherds attended and later dignitaries from the East came bearing gifts, but for the most part the inhabitants of Bethlehem and nearby Jerusalem ignored the birth of God’s Son.
Those who are offended by the public displays of nativity scenes are welcome to follow the example of the aforementioned citizens of first-century Israel and just ignore them.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
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