Holiday Display Controversies

Holiday Display Controversies

In Racine, Vernon, CT, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, atheist groups have put up their own displays alongside Christmas themed ones, and it has raised at least as much ire as the legal insistence of menorahs and kwanzaa decorations on public property.

For the most part, Christians are quite willing to share the secular part of Christmas with everyone, not bothered in the least at decorated trees, lights, santas and snowmen showing up in the most non-religious of places. Plenty of people understand that retailers are profit-motivated rather than religiously motivated when they have “holiday sales” and wish people a generic “Happy Holidays”, and don’t mind seeing some gifts, decorations, and wrapping paraphernalia that isn’t exclusively Christmas-oriented. And when courts decided that displays on public property had to be either completely secular or inclusive of all celebrations, most people understood and accepted that. The idea was that if everyone was paying the taxes on the land, the purchase price of decorations, the electricity costs, labor by public employees to erect, dismantle, maintain, and store the stuff, that it shouldn’t be exclusionary. No big deal. Nativity scenes without anything unrelated aren’t forbidden on private property or church property, after all, any more than menorahs, or Buddha statues, or pentagrams, so religion is hardly being suppressed. Really, most people are OK with it.

It’s the ones who aren’t who drive everyone else nuts. And while atheists don’t have holy days, they have as much right to join what should be an all-inclusive display on public property as anyone else. Of course, if everyone decided to put up a display piece regardless of whether their practice included a December holiday, there wouldn’t be much room for anything else, but that’s something I won’t even get into here.

The problem is that no matter how benign an atheist display might be, it’s got a different message. Adding a representation of a different group’s celebration says “See? We’re all united in celebrating a holiday that involves gift-giving during the same time of year as you!!!” The atheist display challenges the foundation of those holidays (hmmm. . .maybe not kwanzaa, though) simply by being an expression of the lack of any religious belief. There is no way for it to be a statement that unites atheists with religious celebrants.*

So, I’m of two minds on this. I really don’t see a need to put up an atheist display during religious holidays. It’s only for a few weeks each year, and there’s no way to avoid it being antagonistic. The places I see a need for an atheist display are the ones where certain government folks have elected to put up permanent displays of a religious nature. Back in 2005, in response to Judge Roy Moore’s insistence on putting up a giant ten commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse, rules similar to the holiday display one were enacted, but it’s not hard to find laws on state or local books that tiptoe around this, or politicians who try to insert legal wording that protects or promotes a particular religion into law, or people who donate posters, monuments, or other displays that do the same into public places. When a person, persons, or group protest against this, they are often subjected to a good deal of harassment and negative publicity. If they pursue legal action, supported by this 2005 law, the displays may be removed or have other “historic context” pieces added, but it’s an uphill battle that’s expensive both financially and emotionally. Some groups try to add their own displays to counterbalance the innately religious ones, and end up going through years of litigation. The legal or political entities that put up their own religious displays simply aren’t open to the idea, so they fight hard against it. The good news is that as it gets more expensive for them to defend themselves, they’ll often remove the display from public property. (But they don’t give the money they spent to purchase and place it back to the taxpayers. Sad, that.)

Whether the displays are temporary or permanent, though, protests against them are met with a similar response: “Nobody’s forcing you to (believe, practice, celebrate, etc.)” That’s exactly what those displays are doing, though. They’re endorsing a specific religious doctrine, and paying for it with money from people who don’t necessarily believe that doctrine. When the push for Christmas consumerism begins early, and displays go up everywhere, so that children all want to wake up Christmas morning to a bunch of wrapped gifts whether they’re Christian or not, how could you say nobody’s forcing people to celebrate? When Christmas day is a paid vacation day for nearly every public employee (and paid double time for essential personnel), how is that not an endorsement of a particular religion? When public figures repeatedly state (incorrectly) that this country was founded on Christian principles, is a religious bias even a tiny bit unclear?

And if the holiday decorations in the public square are a lighted nativity scene, as they are in Racine, then there is absolutely no question that they represent a specific religious celebration rather than a secular holiday, and must, by law, be balanced by other religious and secular elements, replaced with completely secular elements, or removed. Regardless of how anyone might feel about an atheist addition to the display, it’s clearly just as appropriate as the menorahs, snowflakes, kwanzaa candles, and decorated trees. If you want to be allowed to display something that reflects your religion outside of your own private spaces, then you have to let other people do the same thing. If you want to exclude other people from displaying things that are significant to them on public property, then yours has to go, too. If only one religion is represented on the public dime, there’s no way to spin it that the religion is not being endorsed by the government.

As I said, most people are unfazed, and don’t mind sharing the space in front of the municipal building or town square. The ones who protest, though, would do well to think how they would feel if their favorite displays were removed for the exact legal reasons as the ones they’re protesting. I don’t think they will, given the tenor of the comments I’ve seen from them about this, but we can always hope.

*Retailers or credit card companies could do it, though. Can you see the TV ads showing smiling atheists, arms laden with packages, declaring that it’s great that they can spend too much money in December just like everyone else? Gack.