Religious displays in public places
Donamajicshow asked a few questions about religious displays outside public buildings. This is a controversial area in First Amendment law. Here is how I read it:
The first amendment allows both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. On the other hand, it prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion. Both halves of this also apply to the state. As nice as it would be to say that religion and the state should have a bright wall between them—that’s not practical. The state is comprised of religious people who do religious things—and it’s unfair to discriminate against those who are unwilling to pretend to stop having religious belief when they start working for the state. It is also improper to treat religious expression significantly differently than secular expression.
So religious groups are allowed to put up religious displays on government property, provided the display doesn’t improperly imply that the government sponsors the display or the religion. If the city is involved (for example with set-up or with providing electricity) any expense to the city should be incidental—and all groups should be treated equally.
But can a city have a secular holiday display? Can the mayor dress up as Santa Clause for a holiday parade? Can there be a town Christmas tree? Big red bows around lamp poles? Many people would say absolutely not. While bows, decorated trees, and Santa are not themselves religious, they are certainly associated with a religious holiday. I think all of these are okay—though towns need to ensure that there isn’t a religious purpose for this. Bows and bunting on light poles to convey holiday cheer may have a perfectly legitimate commercial purpose. A parade with Santa may have a purely social purpose. And while you’re at it, make sure other groups in the town are also represented. Maybe the atheists on city council can put together a “the solstice is a fascinating natural phenomenon” tent. The scientologists can set up a gigantic degaussing magnet. Or, whatever.
If you wanted to find case showing that I’m wrong on public religious displays, you could. (Try the Lemon case.) I can also find one showing your alternative is wrong. There isn’t a neat answer on this one.
But Donamajicshow asked why one would want to put up such a display on public property? Is it a sinister attempt to combine the church and state? (Incidentally—there are good reasons to maintain a separation of church and state. “Because our country was founded on this principle” is not one of them. Our country was founded on a slew of principles, many of which contradicted eachother or have since been abandonned. The Founding Fathers didn’t all agree with eachother. It’s better to argue your point on its merits than to say your position is endorsed by some revered dead guy.)
Most Christmas displays are put up because of a shared Holiday experience.It’s a festive thing. The FFRF sign, on the other hand, was put up because a group of atheists wanted to make their presence known and establish a place for themselves in the community. The sign was vandalized because that’s the sort of thing some people do when they don’t like something they see. It’s not an indication that all the religious people in the town got together and decided to oppress a sign. Somebody did a bad thing. A sign that said “All atheists are going to hell” would also have been vandalized—though probably by somebody different.
So is it a good idea to set up a nativity on a courthouse yard? (I don’t think it would be a good idea to set it up inside the courthouse. Even if that didn’t imply an establishment of religion, it would get in the way.) But why not outside? If people want it there, why shouldn’t they have it there? It’s free expression. It’s not something that’s so important to me that I’m going to go out and buy a nativity to put outside my townhall. But I won’t stop anybody else from doing it.
Donamajicshow finally asked whether we need to protect religion from atheists who will seize power, amend the Constitution, and ban all religion. I’m not worried about that either. I don’t know anybody who thinks we should outlaw atheism. Why would anybody want to do the reverse? If atheists (somehow) elect a majority of the government, I find it highly implausible that they will attempt to ban religious expression. While I disagree with my atheist friends on the whole theism question, they are, for the most part, very reasonable people.