There was no flap this year over the “Merry Christmas” sign in Bethlehem, New York, because the town never displayed it, opting to avoid the possibility of a legal fight even in a community named for the birthplace of Jesus.
That worries religious freedom advocates like Jeremy Tedesco, who fear that states, school districts and municipalities like Bethlehem are increasingly choosing pre-emptive surrender rather than defending their traditions in what has been described as the annual “war on Christmas.”
“It boggles the mind the extent to which government entities overreact,” said Mr. Tedesco, senior counsel with the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom. “The thing is, putting up a ‘Merry Christmas’ sign is not illegal. It’s just not.”
His organization sent a letter to the Bethlehem town supervisor last week urging him to reconsider the decision to exclude the sign, citing Supreme Court case law showing that the display on public property would not violate the Constitution. Still, town officials demurred.
“It is the Town Attorney’s analysis that it is better not to include signs,” the town of Bethlehem said in a Saturday press release. “That way, we can avoid contentious litigation or having the Town thrust into controversy over whose sign shall be placed where, etc.”
The irony was not lost on Mr. Tedesco — “There’s still no room in Bethlehem for a ‘Merry Christmas’ sign,” he quipped — who sees the same risk-averse reactions from government officials nationwide despite the assurances of groups like his.
“I’m not banging on the town officials or school officials. I’m not saying they’re doing this out of some kind of ill will. It’s clearly a misunderstanding of the law,” he said. “It’s not helped by the fact that, yes, there are groups out there like the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU that will rattle sabers where they have no business rattling them. The other side definitely creates an atmosphere of fear for these officials.”
That’s fine with Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose group has fought to counter what she calls “Christian privilege.”
“Just because there might be a balancing finally of Christian privilege — if the Nativity scene’s been up for 50 years in violation of the law and it’s been taken down — that’s justice. That’s not a war on Christmas,” Ms. Gaylor said.
When the group complained last month about the annual Nativity scene in a city park in Wadena, Minnesota, the town took it down — but then residents responded by putting up creches in their own yards, which now number in the thousands.
Some atheists made fun of the campaign on the Wadena NATIVITY Display Facebook page — “If you guys want to have a little fun, go laugh at these people,” said a post on the We F***ing Love Atheists timeline — but Ms. Gaylor had no problem with it.
“We say more power to them. We’re not against Nativity scenes on private and church property,” she said.
Ms. Gaylor chalked a victory in Florida this year when the Florida Prayer Network decided against applying to place a Nativity scene in the state Capitol. Last year, the display prompted the foundation to counter with a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner, while an atheist group submitted a “Festivus” pole of beer cans.
Michigan has seen similar counterprotests from Satanists as well as one group called the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — named after a mocking term for a supernatural being coined by public atheist Richard Dawkins.
“In the Tallahassee state Capitol, we didn’t put up our display this year because no Nativity scene went up,” Ms. Gaylor said. “We don’t think religion or irreligion belongs on public property, but if there’s going to be a so-called public forum where Nativity scenes pop up, we’re going to be there too. It’s not a war on Christmas, it’s just practicing our rights.”
But the price of a “Merry Christmas” sign doesn’t have to be a corresponding pro-Lucifer display, religious freedom advocates say.
As the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty put it, “Just as the government doesn’t have to include a pacifist memorial next to every war memorial, it doesn’t have to include mockery of religion next to every creche or Christmas tree.”
Mr. Tedesco said governments have two options: They can erect their own displays without input from outside groups, or create a forum for privately sponsored displays with certain parameters.
“You can have a policy that says, ‘No disparaging other religions,’” Mr. Tedesco said. “Well, a lot of these atheist groups and Satanist groups, when they put stuff up, they’re attacking other religions. So the government officials have choices to do this in a constitutional way.”
Instead, he said, “what the town [of Bethlehem] is doing is shutting down all speech.”
Since 2000, the Becket Fund has fought government capitulation on religious displays with its annual Ebenezer Awards.
This year’s prize went to the Department of Veterans Affairs “for banning employees at its Salem, Virginia, facility from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to veterans.”
The VA is apparently on a roll: Christmas decorations at the Audie Murphy Hospital in San Antonio, including a Nativity scene, were torn down last week for being “overly religious and offensive,” even though an employee had been displaying them for 33 years.
“I think in general, the American public is happy to accommodate everyone else’s religion, and most of us are happy to hear ‘Happy Hanukkah’ from someone,” said Becket senior counsel Eric Baxter. “But there are certainly some government bureaucrats who feel like they have to suppress religion, which is really unnecessary.”
Sometimes it takes only a single complaint to scrap a town or school tradition. For example, a Kentucky school district removed religious references in its production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” after one parent complained, prompting an ADF letter urging the district to reconsider.
Parents responded by reciting the censored Bible passages during the production, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Ms. Gaylor praised public schools for being especially responsive in removing religious references from concerts and pageants.
“A third of your young people today are nonreligious,” she said. “You have Jews, you have Muslims, you have Wiccans, you have a variety and diversity of people in your nations and in your schools, then you do try to include everybody. You do try to be inclusive and not exclusive.”
Mr. Tedesco said that inclusiveness goes both ways. “The other side says you have to have a welcoming atmosphere. Well, it’s certainly not very welcoming to the majority of people who want that stuff to shut it all down,” he said.
“I think towns, municipalities, cities have a lot of options available to them short of outright censorship,” he said. “And those are the options they ought to look at first rather than putting their tail between their legs and taking the path of least resistance.”