Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

The church-state Christmas season is finally here, now that we have our first public Nativity scene display controversies.

In Indiana, a federal court ruled that a public school’s live Nativity performance violates the Constitution’s ban on government endorsing religion and issued an injunction halting the inclusion of the performance in the school’s “Christmas Spectacular” event. Even with added scenes depicting other religious and holiday traditions, the court found the concentration on the story of Christ’s birth went over the line.

Here is an excerpt from the ruling, a little bit lengthy but worth a read:

Here, the nativity scene is emphasized in a manner unlike any other aspect of the show. To begin with, the nativity scene is on stage continuously for twelve minutes. While that is not a large percentage of the show as a whole, no other performance lasts that long, or even nearly so. . . . Further, the nativity scene provides the visual centerpiece for an uninterrupted medley of performances that includes ten different songs and that lasts about twenty minutes.5 By comparison, the rest of the performances during the show last around three minutes each—the first half of the show is scheduled to last one hour, and includes nineteen separate performances. That twenty-minute segment is nearly a quarter of the show, and dominates the show following the intermission.

. . . In addition, while the majority of the performances during the show convey a joyfulness and exuberance characteristic of the holiday season, the nativity portion of the show has a distinctly different character. It conveys solemnity and reverence, as if the audience is being asked to venerate the nativity, not simply acknowledge or appreciate its place in the winter holiday season. 

[T]he way in which Chanukah and Kwanzaa are being presented in the show in comparison to the Christmas portion in general and the nativity scene in particular actually serves to place greater emphasis on and suggest greater preference of the religious message conveyed by the nativity scene. The Chanukah and Kwanzaa portions will each include a single song performed by a single ensemble, and will last about three or four minutes each. In addition, those portions will not include any live visual components, but may have images representing those holidays projected onto a screen. Meanwhile, the nativity scene is on stage for twelve minutes—more than the other holiday performances combined—and the Christmas portion as a whole lasts about twenty minutes, includes ten different religious songs, and is performed by multiple ensembles from a crosssection of the performing arts department. . . . The disparity is striking. That is not to say that a show must give equal time to respective holidays or religions in order to comply with the Establishment Clause. However, when the School places such disproportionate emphasis in each of those respects on the Christmas holiday, and in particular the religious aspect of that holiday through the live depiction of the nativity scene, it adds to the perception that the School is actually endorsing that religion.

In other Nativity scene news, a live performance at the Michigan Capitol has again this year inspired the “Satanic Temple” to offer its own contribution to the holiday celebration on public property. Instead of fighting its inclusion, supporters of the Christian display seem to have decided to welcome Satanists’ support of First Amendment freedoms. A spokesperson for the Ted Cruz campaign, which is sponsoring the performance, reportedly said, “We don’t have to agree on religious principles to stand together for the right of free speech.”

I guess it’s nice to see people coming together over the holidays.

For more on this topic, see Brent Walker’s column “Respecting religious diversity during the holiday season” and browse stories and posts tagged “holiday displays” here.