Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad joined Christian leaders and residents at an event last week to celebrate the first ever display of a traditional Nativity scene inside the state Capitol in Des Moines.
Five days later, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation were on hand to install a secular display of their own — a metal cutout featuring the Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty gazing down at a manger holding the Bill of Rights.
Equal access to the Capitol for nonreligious displays or those celebrating other religions is what establishes the legal grounds for this Christmas Nativity. But in towns across the country, battles rage each holiday season over what sort of religious displays are allowed in public spaces — ranging from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” poster in a Texas school to a cross atop an Indiana town’s Christmas tree.
Proponents of religious displays, who have long been rankled by attempts to push religion out of the public sphere, hope Donald Trump’s election will herald new enthusiasm for Christmas cheer. The president-elect early on promised to bring back use of the greeting “Merry Christmas,” eschewing the religion-neutral phrase “Happy Holidays.”
“What you are going to see in 2017 is an increase in both private and public displays of Christmas,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom nonprofit. “In the president’s position, he has the national attention. When he goes out and says ‘Merry Christmas,’ that’s going to have a huge impact nationally. I think you are going to see tangible results.”
In the final holiday season before Mr. Trump assumes office, debate continues over separation of church and state, including which types of displays are allowed and which cross the line into giving the appearance the government is endorsing or promoting a single religion over others.
In Killeen, Texas, a local judge last week barred middle school officials from removing a “A Charlie Brown Christmas” decoration that featured “Peanuts” character Linus quoting a Bible verse.
Texas lawmakers in 2013 adopted the “Merry Christmas bill,” which protects displays on public school property so long as they include symbols from more than one religion, include at least one secular symbol, or do not encourage adherence to any one religious belief. The school’s principal had ordered only the Bible verse be removed from the poster, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton took the stance that the verse is allowable under the law and praised the judge’s decision.
“Religious discrimination toward Christians has become a holiday tradition of sorts among certain groups,” Mr. Paxton said. “I am glad to see that the court broke through the left’s rhetorical fog and recognized that a commitment to diversity means protecting everyone’s individual religious expression.”
Meanwhile, in Joplin, Missouri, residents of an affordable housing complex for senior citizens were told to remove all religious symbols from a Christmas display erected in a common area.
Management of Mercy Village told The Joplin Globe that, as a recipient of funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the housing complex would be in violation of the Fair Housing Act if it allowed religious symbols like crosses or Nativity scenes. Secular decorations like a Christmas tree or Santa Claus are allowed, however.
The mixed results haven’t slowed the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that seeks to uphold the free speech rights of religious groups in public places and sponsors the placement of Nativity scenes at state capitols. In addition to sponsoring the Nativity in Iowa this year, the group constructed one Sunday in Sacramento, California, making it the group’s 13th Nativity in a state capitol.
“The Nativity scene at the state Capitol represents constitutionally-protected free speech and expression of religious faith by private citizens in a traditional public forum,” said Tom Brejcha, the president and chief counsel of the group.
Secular groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) prefer the removal of religious holiday displays. Washington state lawmakers previously banned all nongovernment displays inside the Capitol Rotunda in Olympia after protests erupted in 2008 over competing private holiday displays, including a plaque from the group that said, in part, religion is “myth and superstition.”
“It is inappropriate to have a sectarian religious display in the heart of state government,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “We’d much prefer that the seat of government be free from religion — and irreligion.”
When groups like FFRF attempt to erect nonreligion displays to counter religious ones, members say their actions are often misinterpreted as “a war on Christmas.”
“I think it’s a territorial concept and the misconception about the role of the government with religion,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “In December it’s blasphemous if you mention there are atheists or nonreligious people around.”
She expects battles over holiday religious displays to intensify after Mr. Trump takes office.
“We are going to see an all-out war on separation of church and state by Trump’s Cabinet,” Ms. Gaylor said.
Mr. Brejcha of the Thomas More Society said he hopes that Christians will be able to more openly talk about and celebrate their faith under the Trump administration.
“There are elements that would secularize the holidays and make it that religious symbols are only confined to inside the four walls of church,” he said.
But he noted that he doesn’t expect or hope that displays celebrating other religions or secular displays will go by the wayside, adding that support for Nativities and other displays celebrating Christmas remains strong.
“Are we winning? Oh, absolutely,” Mr. Brejcha said. “I think people are coming around to realize that religious speech is free speech too.”