Year after year, the Lion’s Club sets up wire-frame Christmas decorations on the lawn of the historic Jackson County courthouse, facing Main Street in Brownstown, Indiana.
The display, which belongs to the local ministerial alliance, glows from dusk to dawn from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day, with the county providing the electricity.
This led to yet another “Christmas Wars” dispute, with the recent Woodring v. Jackson County court decision offering a precise description of this tableau.
There is a “waving Santa Claus with his sleigh, a reindeer, seven large candy-striped poles, the nativity scene … and four carolers standing in front of a lamppost,” noted Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Joan St. Eve. “Santa Claus and the reindeer are on the left. … To their right are three gift-bearing kings (Magi) and a camel, who look upon the nativity. On the right side of the sidewalk, Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus in the stable are flanked on each side by trumpet-playing angels. To their right are several animals facing the nativity. The carolers stand in front of the animals, closer to Main Street.”
Before the 2018 lawsuit, the Freedom From Religion Foundation warned that the nativity scene needed to come down. County officials responded by moving Santa and other secular symbols closer to the telltale manger.
That move was clearly linked to what activists call the “reindeer rules,” in which secular and sacred symbols are mixed to honor guidelines from the Supreme Court’s Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971. The “Lemon test” asks if a government action’s primary effect advanced religion, as opposed to a secular purpose, thus entangling church and state.
But the majority in a new 2-1 decision in Indiana argued that the “nativity scene is constitutional because it fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas.”
This post-Christmas decision in the heartland may have been a turning point.
“To the degree that the reindeer rules were based on Lemon, this decision said that we now have a new Supreme Court precedent. The reindeer rules appear to be gone,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a brief in the case.
Verm bluntly told the press afterwards: “It turns out the ACLU can’t cancel Baby Jesus.”
Judge St. Eve cited the 2019 American Legion v. American Humanist Association ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court said a 40-foot cross could remain on public property because it was a longstanding memorial that had become part of a “community’s landscape and identity.”
While the Jackson County holiday display may not be old enough to be truly historic, the display was part of a community celebration of a national holiday. The fact that some people opposed parts of the display didn’t change the essential facts, said the judge.
In his dissent, Judge David Hamilton said the American Legion case should not be seen as a “revolution in Establishment Clause doctrine.” While there is more to this debate than “counting whether there are more shepherds and angels than elves and snowmen,” he added, it’s clear that if a “display is dominated by religious symbolism, with only minor or token secular symbols and symbols of other faiths, the message of endorsement calls for court intervention.”
No one expects protesters to stop being offended by public displays of religious symbolism and, thus, to stop filing lawsuits.
But in the future, it will be easier to argue that Americans – secular and religious – celebrate Christmas and that themes and symbols from Christian history are undeniably part of those traditions, said Verm in a telephone interview. Hopefully, there will be fewer fights over whether Jesus is “a little bit too prominent” in community holiday decorations.
“What matters is whether the government can recognize the traditions we have in this country, and that includes symbols from secular culture and religious cultures,” she said. “Americans tend to be religious people and you’re not establishing any particular religion if you acknowledge that fact. … Religion doesn’t need to be scrubbed out of the public square if it has been there a long time and it has become part of our culture’s history and traditions.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.