For the first time in 59 years, Palisides Park in Santa Monica, California will not feature a nativity scene with Baby Jesus. The city decided to disallow all religious displays in the public park this year, but was challenged by the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee (yes, there's an actual committee for that) in federal court. Santa Monica's ban was upheld by a district court judge, who made the correct ruling on the grounds that since the park is public property, the city may decide to implement an across-the-board ban on religious displays.
Naturally, many Christians are up in arms because they think the First Amendment entitles them to promote their religious hokum using tax-payer funded property. The attorney for the committee told TIME,
“[W]hat the city did is find their way out; they took the cheap way out. Instead of protecting our First Amendment freedoms, they said its not their job to do that.
“Like hell — Their job is to protect citizens’ rights, and they didn’t do that.”
Oh but they did.
Per the Constitution, Americans have every right to utilize and enjoy public property without being subjected to ham-handed displays of religious pride and attempts at proselytization. Why should a park that my tax dollars help fund, be used a staging ground for the promulgation of any religious message, Christian or otherwise? Some have suggested that the solution is to allow any and all religious groups to have displays, but this is hardly the answer. It invites every two-bit religion and faux religion to pollute public space with visuals that embody their fables.
The best solution is the simplest and most constitutional: keep religion and government as far apart as possible. The Founders of the country knew this. Despite the oft-cited references by Thomas Jefferson to the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, to George Washington's allusions to "the Almighty," they and others knew the importance of separating faith and government. James Madison, the principle architect of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, understood this perhaps better than anyone. The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." and Madison read this more broadly than most do today.
While these days, no one bats an eyelash at the existence of official congressional chaplains, Madison thought the idea a violation of constitutional precepts:
"The establishment of the chaplainship to Cong[ress] is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship ag[ainst] the members whose creeds [and] consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects, this is the case with that of Roman Catholics [and] Quakers who have always had members in one or both of the Legislative branches. Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed a Chaplain? To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers. or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor."
The First Amendment also says that Congress may not "prohibit the free exercise" of religion either, meaning American citizens are free to practice whatever religion they wish, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others in doing so. Unfortunately for the religionists who cannot help but show just how religious they are, this would include nativity scenes on public property.
And speaking of Santa Monica and nativity scenes, I simply had to include this: