This Christmas season, the Thomas More Society continues to fight for freedom of religious speech and the free exercise of religious faith in the public square. As legal counsel for the American Nativity Scene Committee and local private groups around the country, the national nonprofit public interest law firm defends these rights and equips Americans to display Christmas manger scenes in their state capitols and other venues that qualify as traditional or designated public forums. The ‘War on Christmas’ continues in 2015.
The Thomas More Society provides legal counsel for privately-funded groups placing nativity scenes in public places in twenty-one states. This year, the Thomas More Society is sponsoring nativity displays in Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Texas, and in front of the Oklahoma Governor’s mansion, in partnership with the American Nativity Scene Committee. These crèches have been donated by an anonymous benefactor. Efforts continue to secure permits for such displays elsewhere around the nation.
These nativity displays represent classic free speech and the free exercise of religious faith by private citizens in the public square. The Biblical scenes have not gone up without controversy.
“Atheist groups may mock our message, but we will not be silent. It is critical that Christians proclaim the Gospel message to their fellow citizens,” said Tom Brejcha, Thomas More Society President and Chief Counsel. “Anti-Christian, anti-Christmas rhetoric and Satanic expositions merely serve to provide sharp emphasis by means of their stark contrast with the positive, uplifting, hopeful and joyous message of Christmas.”
He added, “A message that bears secular as well as religious significance, as it highlights the hope and miracle of birth and new life, the inherent dignity of each and every human being, focusing our attention on the humble and lowly infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger amidst straw and animals, honored by shepherds and kings alike and heralded by choirs of angels. That message of the essential equality and dignity of all human beings, no matter how rich or poor, humble or high-stationed, resonates deeply with the values that Americans cherish.”
Last Christmas, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union tried to force officials in Franklin County, Indiana to dismantle the privately funded and privately sponsored nativity scene that has been displayed on its courthouse lawn every Christmas for over fifty years. The Christian crèche was one of several private displays set up at the county complex throughout the year.
The Thomas More Society defeated both organizations in the Indianapolis federal court. The atheist groups’ claim that the private manger scene was an “establishment of religion by the government” was rebuffed as legally baseless. The court ruled that Christian citizens have a right to display a nativity scene on their local courthouse lawn, which qualifies as a “designated public forum.”
This controversy is not new. Almost thirty years ago, a lawsuit had to be filed to protect Chicago’s Daley Plaza nativity scene and prevent physical destruction of the Holy Family statues. City and county officials tried to suppress the right of Christians to express their religious faith in that traditional public forum, where political rallies, ethnic celebrations and other cultural events had been regularly staged. Private attorney Jennifer Neubauer persuaded the late Chief United States District Judge James B. Parsons to enter a permanent injunction, enjoining the authorities from this “discrimination” against religious expression in Chicago’s “public square.”
“The nativity displays represent a constitutionally protected expression by private citizens in traditional or designated public forums, where the sole role of the government is that of a viewpoint-neutral gatekeeper assuring open access for all citizens to have their say,” explained Brejcha. “If the First Amendment entitles you to get up on your soapbox and plead for a candidate or advocate a political point of view in a public forum, then equally you may get on the soapbox and proclaim the joyous, hopeful message of the Christ child!”