Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pop quiz at Christmas - Oregonian Opinion

Originally published in the Oregonian, December 15, 2007 08:00AM

Pop quiz at Christmas - Oregonian Opinion

It's the holidays, so let the annual battles over religious displays and seasonal greetings begin. I thought I'd offer a quick Civics 101 refresher course to limit the grief and legal expenses.

Lesson One: If you want to say "Merry Christmas" to anyone and everyone around you, have at it. However, if your employer wants you to greet customers with a generic "Happy Holidays," you should a) abide by their wishes or b) find other work. The US Government and the Constitution have nothing at all - zilch, nada, zip -- to say about this.

Lesson Two: If you want to place a nativity scene on your property, knock yourself out. Same goes for your church.

Simple, huh?

So where does the confusion and controversy come in? Much of it stems from intentionally sloppy usage of the word "public" by right-wing alarmists trying to convince people of faith that practicing religion in public has become illegal.

Public can mean "open to the view of all," as in being seen in public, or it can mean "pertaining to a government function, or facility," as in public official or public park .

(Hint: The latter should not be involved with religion). To summarize:

Religious displays on private property, visible to the public? Sure.

Religious displays on Public property? No can do.

That's it, in a nutshell.

Bonus lesson for extra credit: A religious lobbying group set up shop in a D.C. rowhouse opposite the U.S. Supreme Court building. One year, they installed a tiny plastic creche on their property's front lawn, in proud symbolic defiance of the Justices across the street. They then staged a painfully earnest press conference about how they expected (nay, dared?) the jackbooted thugs from the government to swoop in and confiscate their display. Sadly for them, no one paid them any mind, (well, besides me and another bemused passerby). Incredibly, nobody from the nearby ACLU headquarters came by to sue them or kick it over, either.

Explain and discuss.

Class dismissed.

-- Chauncey Canfield

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