Why Government Cancelling Nativity Scenes and Holiday Displays Threatens Everyone’s Freedom

December 11, 2020
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by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read

As millions of Americans prepare for an unconventional holiday season or even the possibility of Christmas being canceled, it appears that Illinois government officials are already deflating the cheer during “the most wonderful time of the year.”

The Illinois Secretary of State’s Office recently announced that decorations won’t be put up at the state capitol for the upcoming holidays. Typically, at this time of year, one would find a Christmas tree in the rotunda, along with a nativity scene, a menorah and even a “Winter Solstice” monument courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

For months, the building has been closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restricting access only to people who work in the capitol. A spokesperson from the Secretary of State’s office stated that because there would be no incoming public to view the seasonal décor, the decision was reached to cancel all holiday displays, religious and secular.

At first glance, it might seem like having no holiday displays is a small inconvenience, and some would argue there’s no real need for the displays, as they’re nothing more than an artificial Christmas tree, some lights and an inanimate display of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

However, coupled with the severe and discriminatory restrictions against houses of worship nationwide, this most recent Christmas holiday cancellation in Illinois points to an increasingly transparent trend: Many state officials treating religious communities and religious freedom as second-class, dispensable and “non-essential.”

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If there’s a valuable takeaway from the current pandemic, it’s this: Far too frequently state and local officials have abused their authority and trampled on the fundamental, constitutional freedoms of Americans, all in the name of “crisis management” or an “emergency.”

Consequently, people of faith should be wary whenever government decides to nix holiday and religious displays, especially when it does so under the guise of a crisis.

Let’s remember that months ago, houses of worship were at first told to lock down temporarily to slow the spread of the virus.

But nearly a year into this pandemic, the attacks on religious freedom and faith communities continue. Discriminatory restrictions are still in place, with churches and synagogues being treated unequally, governors banning singing and worship and pastors even being threatened with arrest or eviction.

Fast forward to today, and it seems we’ve reached a point in America where it’s almost commonplace for government to use the COVID crisis not only to shut down churches, but also to justify the removal of religious symbols.

For those of us concerned about the erosion of our liberties, it’s this kind of action that ought to make us sound the alarm even more.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that it’s in the most tyrannical and authoritarian regimes where we see houses of worship locked down under government orders, a form of repression that’s often followed by the state cleansing all religious references, symbols and institutions from the public square.

It’s only fitting that we recall the multiple cases First Liberty is fighting on this critical battlefront, with so many religious holiday displays being targeted during this time:

  • Right now, First Liberty is fighting in federal court on behalf of the Knights of Columbus, after the City of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware prohibited a Nativity scene displayed in the public square and also issued a blanket ban of religious displays from city property.
  • In another similar case, FLI’s attorneys are also litigating to prevent religious discrimination against Jeremy and Kristy Morris, who were ordered by a Homeowners Association to take down a Christmas display at their Hayden, Idaho-area home.
  • First Liberty attorneys recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Woodring v. Jackson County, an important religious freedom case involving a long-standing public nativity display in Jackson County (IN) that’s come under attack from an out-of-town individual who drove passed by the display and felt “offended” by it.

Looking at the scale of attacks on our First Freedom, there’s never been a more important and defining time to protect the right of all Americans to publicly express their beliefs, whether it’s through the display of a nativity scene, a menorah or a secular monument.

In a year filled with twists, turns and challenges that have threatened the fabric of our country, we should heed the words of Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, whose synagogue (Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois) sponsors the placement of the menorah in the state capitol. He reminds us of why placing religious symbols matters during strenuous times such as we’re living in now:

“It’s a reminder of what the holiday represents, it’s a reminder of religious freedom and I think in today’s climate, on so many levels, it’s very encouraging and important to have this symbol of light, this symbol of positivity even more than ever.”

When one group is canceled at the government’s behest, it isn’t long after that government officials will seek to cancel any other secular or faith-based groups who don’t agree with their agenda. And that’s why fighting for religious freedom in this unprecedented time is critical—indeed, essential—for every American, whether religious or not.

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