YPSILANTI, Mich. — Jill Carr isn’t trying to offend anyone with her efforts to place a Nativity scene on public land in front of the Ypsilanti Township fire hall.
She just hopes to make Christmas in her community look more like Christmas.
“The Christmas spirit is what it’s about,” said Carr, who is a Pentecostal Christian. “It’s been 20 years since they’ve had anything like that around here.”
But Carr’s plan has been stalled by municipal officials in Ypsilanti, who are worried that such a display could be unconstitutional.
The Nativity scene in Ypsilanti is just one of a number of Christmas-display incidents cited by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in a Nov. 27 press release.
n After the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce dropped sponsorship of the annual “Hollywood Christmas Parade,” the Los Angeles City Council took over and renamed it the “Hollywood Santa Parade.”
n The Department of Housing and Urban Development has censored religious symbols of Christmas from its housing complexes.
n No Christmas decorations are allowed on school buses in parts of Vermont.
n A Jewish public official in Wisconsin is seeking to rename the “State Capitol Holiday Tree” the “Christmas Tree,” but is being opposed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
n Chattanooga, Tenn., has banned display of a live Nativity scene.
n Sonoma, Calif.’s City Council has voted against religious displays on the community’s plaza.
n Voters in Berkley, Mich., have banned a crèche at City Hall.
n Fort Collins, Colo., will allow only secular holiday symbols to be displayed inside city buildings.
n No religious symbols are allowed in Seattle-Tacoma Airport, but trees made of cardboard are acceptable.
Said Catholic League President Bill Donohue, “We haven’t hit December yet and already the politically correct police are out in force trying to censor Christmas.”
After her request to display the Nativity scene in Ypsilanti was not approved, Carr contacted the Thomas More Legal Center for help.
The Ann-Arbor, Mich.-based organization, which works to protect the religious freedom of Christians, has supplied information to Ypsilanti officials explaining the Nativity scene can be displayed legally if it also contains non-Christian symbols or has a disclaimer stating it was placed on public land by a private individual, not the local government.
Brian Rooney, an attorney with the legal advocacy group, said there is widespread misunderstanding about the constitutionality of religiously themed Christmas displays in public places.
In reality, Rooney said, the Supreme Court has ruled that they are perfectly acceptable so long as they conform to an “endorsement test.” That test specifies Christmas displays should also contain secular symbols or symbols of other religions in order to avoid suggesting a government endorsement of Christianity.
But Rooney said “left-wing fringe groups” like the ACLU that want to restrict public expressions of religion have confused and intimidated public officials by threatening to file lawsuits if any Christmas-themed displays are approved.
“What we find a lot of times, what we find from these town councilmen and principals is they don’t know the law and they think the ACLU is right, or they become afraid from the letters they receive from the ACLU,” Rooney said. “A lot of our job is educating them to see that the law is on their side, and that we’ll represent them for free.”
The ACLU did not reply to a request for an interview prior to the deadline for this article.
In recent years, some large retailers have also become wary of allowing Christmas references in their holiday marketing campaigns.
Last month, the Florida-based advocacy group Liberty Counsel released its “Naughty & Nice” checklist of major stores regarding Christmas retailing.
Among the retailers singled out as “naughty” for restricting or prohibiting references to Christmas are Home Depot, Lowe’s, Toys ‘R’ Us, Best Buy, Eddie Bauer, Gap and K-Mart.
The “nice” list of stores that are more accommodating to Christmas includes JC Penney, Kohl’s, Target and Wal-Mart.
“Every consumer should make a list and check it twice, stop patronizing retailers which are naughty and shop at those which are nice,” Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, the group’s founder and chairman, said in a press release.
Home Depot was included on the “naughty” list because of the exclusion of references to Christmas on the store’s website.
In a statement via e-mail to the Register, Home Depot denied that it has a policy of excluding all Christmas references.
“The Home Depot has and will continue to include the word ‘Christmas’ in a variety of communication efforts, including advertising, store banners and point of purchase displays near such items as Christmas trees,” Home Depot said. “We also use the word ‘holiday’ in our outreach to customers, as many of our store displays and other marketing efforts cover more than one holiday from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and stay in place throughout the entire holiday season from November through January.”
The Knights of Columbus have sponsored an annual “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign since the 1970s.
Patrick Korten, vice-president of communications for the Knights, said the campaign was introduced to remind Catholics and other Christians to keep sight of the reason for the holiday — the birth of Christ — amidst all of the commercial glitter that surrounds it these days.
More recently, “based on a profound misunderstanding of the religion clause in the First Amendment, some people have said that the mere display of a Nativity scene in a public place, for example, is somehow unconstitutional,” Korten said. “That’s absurd.”
Added Korten, “The really troubling thing in the last couple of years has been an inclination of some large commercial concerns — store chains — to minimize or even eliminate mention of Christmas in their stores.”
The Knights’ “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign operates at both the national and local level. The national office sponsors a “Light Up for Christ” initiative on the first Tuesday in December, in which Knights of Columbus councils across America and around the world light up Nativity scenes and Christmas trees at 8 p.m.
The Knights also sponsor public service TV and radio ads, and last year introduced a paid TV ad on cable news networks and country music television encouraging people to help needy children at Christmas. That ad will run again this year along with a new ad featuring Eduardo Verástegui, star of the movie Bella and a Knights of Columbus member.
Locally, Knights councils sell religiously themed Christmas cards in many parishes, and councils around the nation have generated a variety of innovative ways to get across the “Keep Christ in Christmas” message.
In Connecticut, for example, a Knights council is distributing lapel buttons that say “It’s OK to Say Merry Christmas to Me.” Another council in Illinois has produced car magnets with a Nativity scene and the caption “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
Korten praised the Liberty Counsel’s Naughty & Nice list as another useful way to promote the message that the holiday season should retain its Christmas heritage.
“To the degree that these retailers find out that there are consequences for turning their backs on faithful Christians who are among their customers, that’s a very good thing,” said Korten. “It’s in the best traditions of America — to use the power of the pocketbook in order to make a point like that.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.