Tis the season in which Nativity displays and the inevitable hoopla over where they can be displayed. Can they or can’t they be displayed on the courthouse lawn, or other government property?
Let’s take a look at what the First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The historical reason behind the “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” was that the Church of England was the official government religious faith. Many of the immigrants to the colonies were escaping religious persecution since if you did not belong or believe in the same doctrine as the Church of England, you were subject to harassment at best or imprisonment at worst. Thus, the “Separation of Church & State” clause was written into the First Amendment to protect the religious freedom of the citizens of the United States from a government-sponsored religion such as the Church of England.
Note that this Amendment did not ban God from Government! If that were the case, then why is there the phrase “In God We Trust” on our money, sessions of Congress open with a prayer from the Chaplain, public officials such as judges & the President are sworn in on the Bible, and various government declarations refer to God? So where does a Nativity display on the courthouse lawn violate the Constitution?
In my humble, nonlegal mind, it does not! Congress did not make a law or establish any religion that someone must belong to. Nor does it ban the free expression of faith, even if it is on public property.
However, the Supreme Court ruling that removed such displays was the result of a legal suit that presented the argument that such a display violates the civil rights of a non-Christian (specifically, an Atheist) because the display was offensive to him and promoted a faith that he did not believe in. By the nativity scene being on public property, the government, by default, was promoting the Christian faith.
From an intellectual standpoint, I can understand the reasoning behind this argument. But I hate to break it to him, but there are a number of religious and anti-religious demonstrations and displays held on public property that offend me and I think violate my civil rights & could hold the same argument that was presented in his case! But does the government promote those views? No, it does not, and I don’t call up my local ACLU chapter to file a lawsuit.
Here’s where I think the rubber should meet the road: The local community should have the final say if a Nativity (or any other) scene should be on public property. There have been precedents for this on a number of local levels. And if someone has a problem, they are just going to have to suck it up with the rest of us.
After all, if a local community like San Francisco can pass an ordinance that removes my Second Amendment right to own a firearm, they can certainly pass an ordinance which would allow a Nativity scene on public property…