One of the truly hot-button issues involving a Christian presence on government property concerns Christmas celebrations and displays. Ditsy Carmen Suarez, a resident of Miami-Dade County, Florida, noticed during the 2002 Christmas season a prominent holiday display at the Miami-Dade County Permit and Inspection Center when she entered the building. She was surprised to discover that, while a Jewish symbol and one celebrating Kwanzaa were on display, Christian symbols were conspicuously absent. This omission concerned Suarez, so she asked the employee at the information desk why a nativity scene was excluded. He demurred, saying he'd been asked that same question a number of times, but didn't know the answer.
Suarez called the county communications department, where an employee informed her that the nativity scene was disallowed because it was religious in nature and only non-religious seasonal symbols were permitted. The director of the Permit and Inspection Center confirmed the policy and added that private individuals had donated the Jewish and Kwanzaa symbols. Suarez then offered to provide a nativity display at her own expense, but her offer was rejected. According to the director, the county attorney said that a Christmas display would violate the "separation of church and state."
Suarez was understandably perplexed at the singling out of Christian symbols for exclusion on church/state grounds, especially since at least one of the other symbols permitted was religious in nature. When the American Family Association (AFA) Center for Law and Policy threatened to seek a federal temporary restraining order, the Inspection Center permitted Suarez to place her display alongside the existing ones. "This is yet another case in which ignorance of the law created irrational fear of violation of the separation of church and state," said Mike DePrimo, AFA's senior litigation counsel. "If the government officials were even remotely as solicitous of the rights of Christians as they are of other groups," said AFA chief counsel Stephen M. Crampton, "we would all enjoy greater freedom."
In Wildwood, Florida, the city council voted to place two angel decorations on the front lawn of City Hall over the objections (and legal threats) of the American Atheists, who had written a complaining letter to Mayor Ed Wolf about the display. In his letter, American Atheists Florida director Greg McDowell said, "Last year, while driving through Wildwood, I noticed that along with other ornamental displays, your beautiful, new City Hall had angels outside on the lawn. Angels are without question a religious symbol, and must be omitted this year and in the future..What we want is absolute separation of religion and government."
Mayor Wolf expressed dismay that the scene caused such an uproar, because "there was no intent to make [the decorations] religious." Moreover, "it is not a manger scene, but little wire frames of angels and deer with clear Christmas lights probably purchased from Wal-Mart." Ron Barrier, spokesman for American Atheists, disagreed, saying, "Angels are a concept of Christianity," and besides, "churches and temples own plenty of land to display all the decorations they want."
It just gets crazier. A New Jersey public school banned the classic Charles Dickens play A Christmas Carol because of its spiritual overtones and redemptive message. The city council of Kensington, Maryland, removed Santa Claus from its traditional tree-lighting ceremony simply because a few families said the jolly fellow would make them uncomfortable. After complaints, the council changed Santa's status from "disinvited" to "uninvited."
Ron Sims, county executive of King County, Washington, directed his employees not to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" at work. The Wisconsin Department of Administration invited people to place handmade ornaments on the state's "holiday tree"-yes, "holiday tree"-and left the ornament guidelines in the hands of state bureaucrats. Lo and behold, the bureaucrats decreed that the ornaments should not be religious in nature.
In Covington, Georgia, the ACLU filed suit against a public school district because its calendar designated December 25 as Christmas, which is unconstitutionally "advancing religion," as opposed to just recognizing a commonly known fact. The ACLU also filed an action against a Pittsburgh public parking lot that set aside a number of parking spaces near a Roman Catholic Church that was housing a nativity scene, to allow travelers to view the display. The ACLU's opposition to this courtesy prompted criticism from Rabbi Aryeh Spero, president of Caucus for America. "The ACLU's insistence here that common courtesy and accommodation be forbidden," wrote Spero, "bespeaks a civic mean-spiritedness, a narrow and small-minded approach to law, and reflects the insecurity and stinginess of certain ACLU-niks choosing not to share a majority-held celebration, i.e., If I don't have Christmas, neither can you. Obviously, the ACLUE is animated by hostility to Christianity in the context of American public life."
Governmental deference to the Easter tradition causes separationists similar anxiety. In Monona, Wisconsin, for example, city officials made the audacious decision to close the public library and City Hall offices on Good Friday afternoon-partly because the library staff has a half-day off under their union contract. The library was only closed from noon to 3 p.m.-some Christians traditionally observe Jesus' crucifixion during this period-and City Hall was closed the entire day for driving. The overarching agenda, however strained, seems to be divorce the state from any recognition of religion.
Indeed, a radio and television personality in Phoenix, Arizona, David Leibowitz-a self-styled strict separationist-in an op-ed for the Arizona Republic, told of being put off by Gaylor's "shrillness."
"Funny," wrote Leibowitz, "how believing in a cause can work: You go merrily along, so certain, until you meet someone who agrees with you so completely. Then, his or her ridiculousness changes your mind. Consider yourself warned if you fancy yourself a strict separationist when it comes to matters of church and state, as well as a patriotic American made uncomfortable by "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I was, too, until a few days ago, when I spoke to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundaton."
Official Good Friday observances have been attacked in other contexts as well. In Illinois, a public school teacher brought a civil rights lawsuit against the state superintendent of education, challenging the practice of making Good Friday a paid holiday. And Hawaii has faced strong opposition for its tradition of observing Good Friday as a paid legal holiday for all county and state employees.