Last month, an extremist group from Wisconsin bullied Gig Harbor’s city leadership into excluding a small crèche, or nativity scene, from the city’s traditional holiday display. These anti-religion activists cited a few misleading statements of First Amendment law and frightened the city’s leadership into ending a beloved holiday tradition.
This state of affairs is sad and flagrantly un-American. It is also completely unnecessary. Gig Harbor has every right to include the nativity scene in its yearly holiday display.
As a First Amendment attorney, I have seen Gig Harbor’s dilemma played out in other communities around the country. Fortunately, the law is on the side of the city, not the activists from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Under clear and unyielding precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court, a city-displayed crèche is perfectly lawful as long as it is part of a larger holiday display – just the kind of display found in Gig Harbor.
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The Supreme Court established the guidelines for lawful government nativity displays in two separate cases, known as Lynch v. Donnelly and County of Allegheny v. ACLU. These guidelines are very simple – so simple they are sometimes called the “Reindeer Rule.”
A city can have a crèche as part of a holiday display as long as the display also includes secular elements such as reindeer, a snowman, Santa Claus, a Christmas tree or anything else. A city just can’t have a crèche by itself with nothing else around it or do anything to show a religious purpose for the display.
These guidelines remain good law today, and Gig Harbor’s traditional, multi-faceted holiday display and crèche easily fit within them.
As an example, last month the community of St. Bernard, Ohio was in a situation similar to Gig Harbor, but that story had a happier ending. City leaders received a complaint letter from the same extremist group over the enormous nativity scene that sat right outside their city hall.
Fortunately, the leaders of St. Bernard knew their holiday display complied with the law and they had nothing to fear. They chose to leave their nativity scene in place. Upon hearing of the city’s sensible resistance, along with further explanation of the display’s context, the extremist group was reported as being satisfied with the lawfulness of the display.
Public officials often get confused over First Amendment matters. This is fueled in part by widely circulated misstatements of the law as well as intentionally false propaganda. Such confusion can cause well-meaning officials to feel forced to end beloved traditions. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
My firm focuses exclusively on First Amendment and religious freedom matters. We advise and represent officials and governments at all levels on issues of church and state. John Skansi, the local man who owns the crèche traditionally used in the city display, retained us to help him in this matter.
So, this week, on behalf of Mr. Skansi, First Liberty offered to meet with Gig Harbor’s leadership to explain how the law applies to holiday displays that contain nativity scenes. This would ensure the city’s leaders understand that Gig Harbor may have a creche in its 2017 holiday display and remain well within the requirements of the law.
We’re hopeful that Gig Harbor’s leaders will agree to meet with us.
In any event, the people of Gig Harbor and the wider public need to understand: The law is clear, this nativity display is legal, and it can – and should – return.
Roger Byron is senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, the largest law firm in the nation focused exclusively on defending religious freedom. The institute also represents a Bremerton football coach who says he was fired for praying on the field after games.