Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday Symbols and the First Amendment

As earlier posts have indicated, the holiday season involves religious displays that often trigger First Amendment controversies.

NPR reports from Leesburg, Virginia:
For decades, a Nativity scene took center stage at the county courthouse there. But when some residents complained that the tradition violated the separation of church and state, its lawn was opened to numerous public displays. The decision to be more inclusive follows guidance from a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that found a single creche on public property had an "impermissible effect of endorsing religion," while a menorah and a Christmas tree together merely acknowledged holidays that are often celebrated secularly.
Atheist groups grabbed most of the 10 allotted spaces created by the county's policy change in 2009, but their holiday displays are sparking more controversy this year than ever before.
Among the displays are the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a skeleton in a Santa Claus costume.
Local news footage shows one vandal pulling the skeleton off of its cross and gingerly pulling its bones apart. When asked why, the middle-aged saboteur said simply, "Because it's offensive."
Ken Reid, the incoming head of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, hopes the board will adopt tighter regulation of the courthouse grounds. Though Jewish himself, Reid thinks everything was "fine and dandy" with just the Christmas displays. For him, it's not a question of First Amendment rights, but of personal restraint and responsibility.
"These people are, as far as I'm concerned, hell-bent on not only banning everything on the lawn ... by being as offensive as possible, but they're basically trying to stamp out religion," Reid says.
But that's not the intention at all, according to Rick Wingrove, the director of the Virginia chapter of American Atheists.
He points out that some of the displays put up by atheist groups aren't at all offensive. One bears the message "Seasons Greetings, Peace, Love, Health and Happiness to All." They also put up a Christmas tree adorned with tinsel and lights, only instead of ornaments, it's covered with notes from atheists that say things like, "I can be moral without religion."