Questioning the Constitutionality of Celebrating
Religious Holidays at Public Expense
It is unconstitutional for local, state or federal governments to favor one religion over another? Government can show favoritism toward religion by displaying religious symbols in public places at taxpayer expense, by sponsoring events like Christmas concerts, caroling, or by supporting the teaching of religious ideas. It appears the United States government has had a history of favoring Christianity.
The United States government's favoritism of Christianity is a clear violation of the First Amendment. This amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." There is another reference to religion in Article 6, Section 3. This clause states "the United States and the several States shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
There have been several court cases on this and related issues which include Engel vs. Vitale, Everson vs. the Board of Education, and Lynch vs. Donnelly, the "Creche case".
In 1947, in the Everson vs. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th amendment prevented the States and the and the Federal government from setting up a church, passing laws that favor any religion, or using tax money to support any religion. Justice Hugo Black "incorporated" the First Amendment's establishment clause into the 14th Amendment which states that "the State shall not deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of laws and due process. After this trial, people began to question whether school prayer was constitutional (pg. 93-94, Klinker).
The "creche case," Lynch vs. Donnelly, came from Rhode Island in 1980. In this case, the city offical included a creche, or nativity scene, in their city's annual Christmas display that included all traditional Christmas symbols. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger represented the court's opinion when he stated that, "Nor does the constitution require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any." Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackman, and Stevens dissented. They thought the "primary effect of including a nativity scene in the city's display is. . . to place the government's impremature approval on the particular religion's beliefs exemplified by the creche." They argued that it clearly violated the First Amendment (p. 99, Witt).
These cases demonstrate a pattern of Constitutional thought by high courts prohibiting the promotion of particular religious ideas, and the spending of tax dollars on events that promote particular religious views. A logical extension of this pattern can be made to the spending of tax dollars for decorating towns on religious holidays, such as Christmas.
Local, state, and federal governments attempt to get around the prohibitions of the Everson and Lynch cases by decorating the streets in town with non-religious symbols such as lights, trees, wreaths and other objects that symbolize the season. But, religious people think the season itself has religious meaning. Using tax money to decorate for a religious holiday not celebrated by everyone is unconstitutional because these symbols support one religion over no religion. The First Amendment prohibits this.
We understand that public school prayer discriminates against some religious views so it is prohibited in public schools. Similarly, Christmas concerts play a role similar to the teaching of creationism and prayer. The Christmas concerts subconsiously influence students toward the beliefs of Christianity. To be fair to non-Christian groups, converting "Christmas" concerts to "Holiday" concerts would maintain the "separation of church and state."
One could recognize the beliefs of many religions or none. One could play music from several religions or non-religious music.
Religion is a personal belief. There are so many religions to choose from, including the choice of no religion. It is impossible to decide that one belief is right and another is wrong. So it is reasonable to say that it is unconstitutional for government to favor Christianity over other religions, including Athieism. Instead of using tax dollars to decorate the streets for the holidays, we could use the money for other things like playgrounds and helping the homeless. Also, students could play music that has no religious meaning to please every belief or offend none. This way, government would be prevented from favoring one religion over another.
Henry, Richard, Government in America, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1994 pg.141, 146, 148.
Klinker, Philip A., The American Heritage History of the Bill of Rights, Silver Burdett Press., 1991 pg. 99-100, 109, 93.
"Darrow, Clarence Steward", "The American Peoples Encyclopedia vol.6 ", Grolier Incorporated, New York 1962, pg. 796.
Witt, Elder ,"The Supreme Court and Individual Rights", Second Edition, Congressional Quarterly Inc., Washington D.C., 1988, pg. 99