For many of us, Christmas is a time for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s also a time for giving and receiving presents and watching your infant children shriek at the sight of a fat guy in a red suit. However you celebrate the season, the last thing you want is someone telling you, “No, you can’t do that.”
Especially if you have the designation of Christmas City.
I read some news the other day that actually makes me not want to tell people I’m living in Wisconsin. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is based in Madison, the state capitol. They like to go around and tell people that you can’t have baby Jesus in a public building or that you can’t have Christ in Christmas. Usually, they’re pretty easy to ignore.
Unfortunately, they decided to toy with Prescott, the city in Arizona where I was born, and with a tradition that’s older than my mother. In the center of the downtown area is the county courthouse, which is decorated every year for the holiday season. To kick off the lighting of the courthouse, there is always a big ceremony in early December, which includes schoolchildren singing Christmas songs.
Apparently, that is a problem for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, since one of its members went to the ceremony and—gasp!—witnessed children singing about a “holy infant” and “angels.” This group, which touts on its website how it’s the largest known organization of freethinkers, believes that you shouldn’t be allowed to use public property for religious revelry, touting the separation of church and state.
I admit to a certain amount of bias in this case, since this is where I came from, and I was even part of the lighting ceremony one year. However, I have an issue with someone from an organization way out of state coming to a ceremony that has been observed for more than a half-century and telling people, “No, you can’t do that.”
The separation of church and state argument has been used so much that it’s looking like sun-dried leather. The courthouse lighting is not a mandatory event for people to go to. No one is forcing people to listen to Christian songs or hear the story of Christ’s birth. Granted, having Arizona’s Secretary of State reading from the Bible might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but considering the guy hails from Prescott, I don’t think he should be denied the opportunity.
Here is the FFRF’s assessment of the ceremony, according to a letter sent to the city, county, the Secretary of State, and others:
“On December, 1, 2012, in Prescott, Arizona, the city of Prescott and Yavapai County held an official government ceremony in front of the Yavapai County Courthouse, in Courthouse Square. According to our local member and complainant, the ceremony ‘was like going to church.’”
Their take that this is a government ceremony is a bit of a stretch. Yes, the city and county provide funding for the lighting, but so do a number of private businesses and organizations. However, the FFRF apparently did not notice the daytime and nighttime parades held on city streets and other holiday events that do not use Christian songs or Bible stories.
Of course, the FFRF doesn’t stop with that statement. Here’s more:
“Your inappropriate actions exclude and offend a significant portion of the Arizona population that is non-Christian or non-religious. This official ceremony unconstitutionally ‘send(s) the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”’ Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 309-310 (2000) (quoting Lynch v. Donelly).”
Forgive me, but this statement makes it sound like Prescott should have sent out invitations to the atheists and agnostics and made them feel welcome. If I’m throwing a celebration, I’m usually not inclined to invite everyone in town to come party at my crib. I also don’t particularly appreciate houseguests telling me how I should celebrate. If I feel like drinking scotch, I don’t want someone telling me I shouldn’t, or that I should only be drinking tequila.
Speaking of telling people what to do, here’s what the FFRF tells Prescott it should do at the end of the letter:
“Any future courthouse lighting ceremony must adhere to the constitution requirement that ‘the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting people praise God for the birth of Jesus.’ Id. at 601. Public schoolchildren cannot be taught and asked to sing explicitly and almost exclusively religious songs as part of the school curriculum or events or for an official government ceremony. The city, county and state cannot endorse the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin to be our savior. In the future, this ceremony should not include Bible readings and Christian hymns. Stick to secular songs and symbols like the tree lighting, Santa and reindeer. May we hear from you, in writing, at your earliest convenience?”
I have a suggestion for Prescott’s response, summed up in two words: Stick it.
I can understand that there should be more of a variety of songs in the ceremony, especially since Jingle Bells was the lone song that didn’t tout Jesus, but to tell the people that put so much effort into planning and executing the courthouse ceremony that they can’t do something is pompous and arrogant.
If these people don’t want religion in their lives, that’s their choice. However, once they decide to try and exclude it from other people’s lives. Prescott can, and should, try to change the ceremony often enough so that it’s fresh and different. To do it to please the Freedom From Religion Foundation, however, is not a wise option.
I hope Prescott stands its ground. If this organization succeeds, it’s just going to generate a firestorm that Arizona’s Christmas City can really do without.