Here they come again -- the Christmas Wars.
No, I am not talking about Fox News specials on whether cashiers in megastores should be forced by their employers to say "Happy Holidays" to customers instead of "Merry Christmas." We have to wait until Halloween for those stories to start up. I'm talking about actual church-state battles about religion in the tax-dollar defined territory in the public square.
Public schools are back in session, so it's time for people to start planning (cue: Theme from "Jaws") holiday concerts. This Elkhart Truth story -- "Concord Community Schools sued in federal court over live Nativity scene in high school's Christmas Spectacular play" -- has all the basics (which in this case is not automatically a compliment). Here's the lede:
DUNLAP -- Two national organizations Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the Concord Community Schools over a live Nativity scene that has been part of the high school’s Christmas Spectacular celebration for decades.
You can see the problem looming right there in the lede. It's that number -- two.
Anyone want to guess which two organizations we are talking about? I'll bet you can if you try.
The suit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the Christmas Spectacular -- which ends with a scriptural reading from the Bible as religious figures such as Mary, Joseph and the wise men act out the scene -- endorses religion in a manner that is illegal in a public school.
The complaint, filed on behalf of a Concord student and his father, asks the U.S. District Court to instruct school officials not to present the live Nativity scene in 2015 or in the future. The complaint also seeks nominal damages of $1 and legal fees, as well as “other proper relief.”
Now, let me stress that the problem with this story is NOT that it quotes the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU.
Of course they should be quoted and their views are essential. The question here is whether they are the ONLY national-level organizations that should be approached for expert-level commentary when it comes time to covering yet another story about holiday music in public schools (or creches on public land, etc., etc., etc., world without end. Amen.)
Believe it or not, there are other experienced, qualified points of view to hear on the left, in the middle and on the church-state right that are worth considering.
Instead, the Elkhart Truth sets this up as yet another battle between the locals and the national experts, with no variety offered among the latter.
The lawsuit is not a complete surprise to Concord Community Schools, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter regarding the issue to Superintendent John Trout in August. The letter asked the high school to drop the Nativity scene and keep the performance entirely secular. Sam Grover, an attorney with the foundation, said at the time that if the school continued with its Nativity scene, it would expose itself to the risk of legal action.
... At the Sept. 8 meeting of the Concord School Board, Trout made it clear the district would not be backing down and that the Nativity scene will remain part of the holiday performance. ... At that meeting, Trout addressed those in attendance and said Concord Community Schools “unequivocally” disagrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s assertion that any school celebration occurring during the Christmas holiday season must be entirely secular.
“That is not accurate statement of the law,” he said at the meeting. “As always, if a student or parent finds objectionable any portion of the Spectacular, or any school assignment for that matter, that student is free to opt out of the performance or assignment.”
You then have all the usual details about the secular holiday songs in the concert. It is also clear that rehearsals for the concert take place during regular school hours. The complaint about the Nativity scene was filed by the family of a student who is active in the school's music program.
However, at no point in the story is an alternative legal point of view offered, other than that provided by local officials. In other words, there is no debate over the merits of the complaint among legal voices with years of experience handling these kinds of Nativity wars cases.
It's very easy, with a few clicks of a mouse, for journalists to find other points of view. Take, for example, the Rutherford Institute's online legal guide (updated in 2014) to "The Twelve Rules of Christmas." The overture notes:
Over the years, The Rutherford Institute has been contacted by parents and teachers alike concerned about schools changing their Christmas concerts to “winter holiday programs” and renaming Christmas “winter festival” or cancelling holiday celebrations altogether to avoid offending those who do not celebrate the various holidays. ...
In issuing the guidelines, Institute attorneys cited incidents in which, for example, a public school 6th-grade class was asked to make “holiday cards” to send to the troops but were told they could not use the words “Merry Christmas” on their cards. Similarly, nativity displays, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, wreaths, candy canes and even the colors red and green have been banned as part of the effort to avoid any reference to Christmas, Christ or God.
One can also find, with little trouble, the following resource from the Anti-Defamation League: "Religious Issues in Your Child's Public School -- A Guide for Jewish Parents." Then there's this collection of resources from the Pew Forum.
I've written about these topics since, oh, the 1970s, back when I was doing a graduate degree in church-state studies at Baylor University.
In my opinion, it's always good, when covering these topics, to find some experts whose views tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the usual suspects on the left and the right. In the Christmas Wars, one such group is the Baptist Joint Committee. Now, when you hear the word "Baptist" in that name, think Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, not Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Here's a clip from a 2006 column on this topic:
According to J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, which often clashes with conservatives, there is nothing wrong with calling a Christmas tree a "Christmas tree." At the height of this year's holiday warfare, he circulated a three-rule list to help public officials -- especially in schools -- negotiate this cultural minefield in future years. He noted that many liberal and conservative experts agree that:
(1) Concerts in public schools can and should include sacred music along with secular selections, as long as the sacred does not dominate.
(2) Dramatic productions can include religious subjects, as long as they do not involve worship and the goal is to education about religious faiths and traditions.
(3) "Free standing creches, as thoroughly religious Christian symbols, should not be sponsored by government, but Christmas trees and menorahs are sufficiently secular to allow their display without a constitutional problem," wrote Walker.
As this final suggestion hints, the key is that communities can celebrate Christmas, as long as their leaders do not appear to be promoting Christmas -- alone.
Now, in the case discussed, sort of, in the Elkhart Truth story, the crucial question appears to be whether the Bible readings in this program are considered "worship" or "educational." What music goes along with this part of the program? Classical or hymns?
Again, it's a valid story and it's crucial to quote the people who filed the case. But there is no need to have the local school officials stand alone in this legal debate. Why not do some original reporting and cover this debate with authoritative voices offering other points of view?
Stay tuned for more journalistic work on the Christmas Wars. I am (cue: audible sigh) sure there are more stories on the way.