Matthew Staver of Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal advocacy group, insisted that the school had done nothing wrong in providing the opportunity for its students. “It’s perfectly constitutional for the school to afford students the opportunity to go to a Charlie Brown play,” he said, “especially when they don’t require it. It’s optional; parents can opt out.” He added that no one has “the legal right to stop

the school and the rest of the parents from participating in this program.”

High schoolers in a Yuletide Madrigal play

“The war on Christmas is actually bigger than partisan tomfoolery and isn’t limited to right-wing fantasy, either,” observed Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley in a special column for CNN. “Some of it exposes genuine tensions within American politics and society.”

Stanley writes for Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

“Take the decision of the Santa Monica City Council to end the tradition of erecting nativity scenes or other displays in Palisades Park,” he noted in his CNN column. “The right to display a scene was hitherto decided by lottery, and the previous winter season atheists won 11 out of 14 spaces, which they used to erect enormous critiques of Christianity.

“In response, locals lobbied the council to establish stricter guidelines about who could take part. The council decided that would be discriminatory, but it also didn’t want to leave the system open to abuse by more offensive groups like neo-Nazis. So it decided the displays would have to stop altogether. That decision was upheld in November by a federal judge.

“The local secularists were thrilled,” noted Stanley. “‘The free thinkers … played the game of the religionists and they outsmarted them,’ Annie Laurie Gaylor told the Huffington Post. ‘They showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone.’”

A live nativity at Santa Monica

However, several local churches have found a loophole in the local law and now are staffing a live nativity scene with church members. The atheists are furious, but local Christians are taking turns standing vigil in traditional pageant costumes — bathrobes for the shepherds and homemade royal finery for the Wise Men – over the Baby Jesus along with live cattle, donkeys and sheep.

“This story,” wrote Stanley, “is a classic example of the failure to reconcile different interests within a democratic society. Nobody involved was technically wrong. The secularist campaigners were right to say that the nativity displays should be open to everyone because they were on public land. Their Christian opponents were right to insist that anything erected to celebrate Christmas ought to give some priority to celebrating Christmas. And the council was right that, in the absence of consensus, it was better to allow no displays at all. The tragedy being that Gaylor’s campaign ended up destroying a perfectly wonderful tradition in the name of fairness. And that hardly seems fair.

A live nativity on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court

“What’s really happening,” noted Stanley, “isn’t just a targeted, political war on Christmas but a more general battle for control of what goes on in the public sphere, especially around the holidays. Undoubtedly, some of this is motivated by anti-religious secularism. But it’s also the product of living in a crowded multicultural environment where everyone risks getting on each other’s nerves — and we have to find better ways of getting along.”

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