Haunted Christmas in the public square

Sigh. It's "War on Christmas" time again in the public square and, thus, in our newspapers from sea to shining sea. Rejoice, all ye lawyers.

Before we move on to a tragic, but well done (one hole, in the shape of a ghost), Washington Post story on the waves of legal silliness going on out in Loudoun County, Va., I want to establish a few basics. Yes, they will seem self contradictory, but I can't help it. U.S. law is rather all over the place at this moment when it comes to public displays of religion.

(1) I, personally, have never understood why some religious believers think it is so important to have a creche on the lawn of their local government's headquarters.

(2) I've never understood why some religious believers think it is a victory for Christianity to say that a Nativity Scene is not religious and, thus, is merely a cultural symbol. That's a victory for the faith?

(3) In a perfect world, again in my opinion, every church in town would put up its own creche and the courthouse lawn would not be forced by choirs of lawyers to. ... Well, here's the top of the Post story.

For the better part of 50 years, a creche and a Christmas tree were the only holiday displays on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds.

Then came the mannequin Luke Skywalker and signs celebrating the winter solstice. This month, a skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society’s obsession with consumerism. A pine stands adorned with tinsel -- and atheist testimonials. (“I can be moral without religion,” one declares.)

Members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It’s a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, and the manger is surrounded by pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: “Touched by an Angelhair.”

With the new displays, a new tradition was born: a charged seasonal debate.

And so forth and so on.

What the story does is effectively portray the political warfare that surrounds the embattled lawn. It also shows the deeply emotions that all of this touches for many citizens -- on both sides.

What it does not do, however, is talk to any of the Christian leaders who are either (a) super-pro creche, alone (a position hard to justify under "equal access" legal principles), (b) those clergy happily willing to settle for the crazy mix that currently exist or (c) those who would like to see the flip side of "equal access" honored, with the government choosing the legal option of rejecting all displays while leaving the lawn clean, while churches blanket the town in traditional forms of Christmas celebration -- on their own lawns and on those of their members.

At one point readers are told:

Despite a flurry of tongue-in-cheek news reports about the controversy, most in Loudoun don’t find it a laughing matter. Some say the issue is about freedom of speech or the separation of church and state; others say it is about the importance of preserving a cherished small-town tradition.

Stanley Caulkins, who moved to Leesburg in 1937, remembers the first time the Nativity scene was put up at the corner of the courthouse lawn.

Caulkins, who has owned Caulkins Jewelers in downtown Leesburg for more than a half-century, sees the creche as a valued symbol, something that should not be messed with. He went before the County Board of Supervisors two years ago to argue that it should stay. Last week, he said that he still does not understand why the issue engenders such controversy.

“The creche is not religious,” Caulkins said, his voice trembling. “It is a belief symbol. You have to believe in something.” His eyes were glazed with tears.

This is a story about free speech. It is also a story about church-state separation. However, it is also -- gasp -- a story about the current state of Christmas in modern churches and homes. It's about the secular Christmas and the religious Christmas.

Yes, believe it or not, what we have here is a haunted Christmas story.

IMAGE: A sample Flying Spaghetti Monster holiday display

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