CHICAGO (ChurchMilitant.com) - A prestigious legal firm is helping to ward off attacks against Christmas displays in the public square.
With the start of Advent, Christmas decorations are popping up everywhere, and with their appearance, so too come the unwelcome legal challenges to get them taken down.
In Michigan, Newaygo Public Schools is facing the threat of legal action from the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA) for their rooftop display of three wise men and a star.
Mitch Kahle, the founder of MACRA, wrote a letter to Newaygo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Peggy Mathis demanding the school system "must not display, own or maintain these or any religious symbols in the future." Mathis went on to request the removal of a Facebook post mentioning the display from the Newaygo High School page.
Church Militant spoke with Dr. Mathis, who said the display has been present at the school since the 1950s.
She said the support for the display has been overwhelmingly positive, adding a petition was started by community members who want to keep the display atop the school. Almost 3,500 people have signed the petition, more than the town's entire population of just over 2,000. The majority of the comments note that it is a tradition for the town.
Mark Hunt, one of the signers, said he's seen the wise men for 42 years and feels they add charm to the town: "I'm not Christian and I'm not offended. ... They've just become a part of us. They belong on that school."
Mathis said they have asked for an extension to keep the display up until the school board meeting this week.
Contrary to what a lot of people are led to believe, the Establishment Clause does not forbid displays of religiosity on government property. It does not mean that the state must exclude religious speech from the public square.
Church Militant spoke with Thomas Brejcha, president of Thomas More Society, who said the display on the Newaygo school would most likely have to be taken down.
So long as the government, including schools, is not responsible for any aspect of the display, storing, setting up or maintaining it, nativity scenes and even crosses can be displayed on any public property that is a free speech zone.
If the Newaygo school system could find a private sponsor willing to set up and maintain the display, it could be moved to another location that is designated for free speech — possibly even the center of the town.
Unfortunately, the roof of a school is not generally designated as a free speech zone.
The Thomas More Society offers free legal advice because sometimes just the threat of legal action is enough to stop the displays.
In Ravenna, Ohio, a wooden nativity scene won't be included in the decorations at the courthouse this Christmas after the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened them with a lawsuit.
Last year, Ravenna Mayor Frank Seman was contacted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation over their nativity display that was included with many secular decorations. Seman said he had a number of people contact him over the issue — some reminding him of his oath to uphold the Constitution, others expressing concerns over lawsuits, while others told him of ways to continue the display.
Ultimately, Seman decided to move the display off of public property. He said, "I'm not comfortable putting the city in jeopardy for a lawsuit."
With a private sponsor, the display could have continued legally. Brejcha noted that a sign indicating the private sponsorship clearly shows that the display is not government funded.
Thomas More Society and American Nativity Scene have been successful in getting nativity displays at 18 state capitols. As of 2017, California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Texas, Maryland, Maine, Washington and the governor's mansion in Oklahoma all had nativity scenes on display.
They are continuing their tradition of providing free nativity sets and legal help to for people who want to sponsor a public display at Christmas time. Brejcha said a very generous anonymous sponsor pays to have these sets made and shipped to anyone who will build a manger and take care of the setup.
In the past six years, they have shipped out around 300 of these sets to 36 different states and one to Ontario, Canada.
In 2015, when Thomas More Society helped to have a nativity scene installed at the Texas capitol, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Texas Chapter, Terri Burke, told the Houston Chronicle, the installation of the nativity scene is "unfortunately legal."
Atheists and satanists also take advantage of this to display their messages. In Illinois, the Satanic Temple-Chicago was granted permission this year to display their statue, "Snaketivity," next to a nativity scene and a menorah. The display underneath reads, "Knowledge is the greatest gift."
"Free speech is free speech," Brejcha said. In his experience, atheists and satanists "get bored and go away."
"After a while, [atheists] lose interest because they have no message but a contradictory message," he said. "If it's Satan they want to put up, my gosh, that's an awful message. What does Satan stand for? Death? Misery?"
"My advice to people is not to try to suppress them but to leave it up there and it reinforces the positive value of the Christian message," Brejcha said.
"The Christian message is one that resonates very deeply with secular values that we cherish but certainly with American values," Brejcha said. He said it isn't just free speech that the nativity symbolizes, but family life and equality.
He noted that shepherds and kings both came to pay homage to this infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, saying, "I've always said the Christian religion is the root of any notion of equality."
"We're all so unequal in so many ways, except we all stand before God as equals," Brejcha said. "We're charged with doing the best we can with whatever station in life we have or gifts we have or don't have — everybody's equal in that fundamental sense."
Brejcha said they usually like to send out the free nativity sets before Thanksgiving, but there are currently five nativity sets ready to ship. Anyone interested in sponsoring a set to display at their state capitol or city offices should contact American Nativity Scene.