by Lathan Watts • 6 min read
2019 has been a landmark year for religious liberty in America—a unique and special year of monumental achievements in the reclamation of our first freedom.
People of faith are enjoying more religious freedom than at any point in the last half century, and many of you—like myself—look forward to the holiday season as the perfect time to live out our faith.
And why shouldn’t we? After all, the holidays embody a season of peace, goodwill, joy and thanksgiving. Even those who don’t consider themselves religious participate in holiday festivities, customs and traditions. Throughout our country’s history, this is a time we’ve considered somewhat sacred. Americans aren’t just able, but encouraged to practice their beliefs openly and freely.
However, as we begin writing the final chapter of 2019, it appears that “the most wonderful time of the year” is no exception to the all-out war on faith.
Anti-faith groups and activists remain laser-focused on attacking our First Amendment rights, and they’re certainly not afraid to trample on your rights in more vicious, personal and brazen ways than ever before, even if it means dampening the joy and the spirit of happiness during the holidays.
Imagine a holiday season without decorative wreaths, the aroma of fresh-cut pine trees, or the golden glimmer of lights.
Is it possible that even these joyful displays could be the target of anti-religious hostility?
Sadly, it looks that way for one family in Idaho.
A few years ago, Jeremy and Kristy Morris set up a successful Christmas display and program in their neighborhood. It featured cotton candy, candy canes, hot chocolate for neighborhood families and children, beautiful holiday lights and appearances by Santa. They also used the opportunity to accept donations to local charities serving children who are homeless or suffering from cancer.
But their homeowner’s association took a chapter right out of the Grinch’s playbook. At one point, one of the association’s members bluntly stated they were doing so “because someone in this association doesn’t like Christmas.”
Eventually, Jeremy and Kristy had to go to court to resolve the matter. They won the jury trial, but a judge overruled the jury and issued a ruling preventing them from decorating their home for Christmas.
Now, First Liberty Institute, along with our network attorney firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, LLP, have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse the Idaho judge’s decision against Jeremy and Kristy.
More evidence of the full-blown assault on faith comes courtesy of South Sutter Charter School in northern California.
Brooklyn Benzel, a 13-year-old eighth grader, was told she could not perform an instrumental version of “Joy to the World” at her school because the song is too religious. A school employee said the song might be deemed inappropriate and subsequently sent Brooklyn an email confirming she’d be banned from performing it.
It seems as though the school feared words like Lord and Savior and Heaven might be too offensive or might trigger the godless. Of course, school officials offered a politically correct solution and suggested Brooklyn consider playing “Jingle Bells,” a more secular holiday tune.
The silver lining, however, is that Brooklyn held her ground and stood strong by her faith. In response to the incident, she stated: “There’s no way I’m going to relent. I could have easily submitted a new song, but the next thing you know the First Amendment is dead.”
With Christmas right around the corner, it’s not surprising that organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the American Humanist Association (AHA) and misguided officials are looking for ways to suppress religious expression.
One such incident occurred in Bradley County Arkansas, after county officials issued a public letter stating the county will no longer display a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. For the last three years, County Judge Klay McKinney says an out-of-state ACLU chapter has contacted him asking for the display to be removed.
According to many residents, the courthouse nativity display is a local tradition that has been around for at least 50 years. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many in the community have responded to its removal by setting up nativity scenes in the front of their houses and even printing them on shirts.
So, while the county gave in to the demands and the pressure of an outside group, it’s refreshing to see that the residents of Bradley County didn’t relent so easily. Instead, they’ve given the best possible response when faced with censorship or suppression—they’ve chosen to live out their faith more boldly and openly.
Opponents of religion have been turning a season meant for peace into a season of strife. The incidents above—and the countless violations we’ve seen in recent years—are examples of how hostile groups twist and exploit the holidays into a time to destroy religious liberty. They abuse the courts and disregard the First Amendment to intimidate everyday citizens because of their religious convictions.
This holiday season, the stakes have never been higher for religious freedom in America. And that’s why First Liberty attorneys are ready to be First in the Fight® with the confidence that the Constitution and the law are the foundational pillars that safeguard religious liberty for you and your family.