Not all Christmas wars stories are created equal.
The most important ones have something to do with religious believers of all kinds attempting to carve out some space in what is usually called the "public square." We're talking about government or business controlled environments ranging from public schools to shopping malls, from county court house lawns to public parks.
In other words, we're talking about battles over what the Peanuts character Linus can or cannot say in a public-school holiday musical or in a poster about such an event. Here is a case in point, care of The Washington Post, complete with the perfectly normal term religious liberty being wrapped in scare quotes. You know the drill. Let's start with Charlie Brown asking, "Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Linus, his thumb-sucking and blanket-toting best friend, speaks up.
“Sure, Charlie Brown,” he says. “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”
Then the character recites a lengthy Bible passage, from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when angels descend upon the flock-tending shepherds to announce the birth of baby Jesus.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord,” Linus says. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It is that quote, extracted from the special’s most overtly Christian scene, that has thrust a Texas middle school nurse’s aide, the school district she works for and the state attorney general into a very public -- and unseasonably bitter -- debate over what “religious liberty” means inside the walls of the state’s public schools.
You can almost write the rest of this story yourself, can't you?
The key, this time, is that the story actually includes large chunks of material about some of the laws that frame this debate, such as the Merry Christmas Law in Texas that was passed to clarify some U.S. Supreme Court material on such matters.
Here is the key passages in the story:
The battle began ... when Dedra Shannon, a nurse’s aide at Patterson Middle School in Killeen, Tex., scrawled that Linus quote on a six-foot-tall poster, added a cutout of the character and the famously sparse Christmas tree, and taped it to the nurse’s office door.
Later on there is this:
The school district argued that Shannon’s homemade Linus poster, with its biblical quote, violated the Merry Christmas Law by promoting Christianity without also acknowledging other secular symbols, such as a snowman, or other winter religious traditions, such as Hanukkah -- a requirement of the statute. It also mandates that a school display cannot include “a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.”
“Our employees are free to celebrate the Christmas and holiday season in the manner of their choosing,” the district said Friday in a statement obtained by TV station KWTX-10. “However, employees are not permitted to impose their personal beliefs on students.”
In other words, it didn't matter whether the school facility itself, as a whole, included a wide variety of materials about various winter holidays, including Christmas. The poster was, of course, only one of many such expressions in this corner of the public square.
School officials, however, are apparently arguing that this individual poster needed to contain all the other religions as well, in order to be acceptable.
Under that logic, it would appear that the new multi-faith "free expression zones" on public property in many American communities need to be upgraded. So an individual Nativity scene, sitting next to a Menorah, sitting next to a secular holiday tree, sitting next to a large ear of corn for Kwanzaa, sitting next to a pentagram, would need to include elements of all of the other religions? Perhaps a shepherd would need to hold a pentagram and/or an ear of corn?
That has interesting implications for another Christmas war story that is unfolding down in Florida. The Sun-Sentinel story opens like this:
A satanic pentagram display that a man says represents his religious views, has been vandalized again, according to Boca Raton police.
The alternative holiday display in a free-expression zone in Boca Raton's Sanborn Square was found on the ground early Tuesday. Tire tracks led to and from the toppled display.
Some drivers honked and cheered as they drove by the damage.
The 300-pound, 10-foot pentagram is the work of Preston Smith, a schoolteacher for Palm Beach County Schools. The display has been opposed by some religious leaders who called it "offensive and harmful." And it has been a frequent target for vandals, with police responding to damage reports eight times this month.
This is, of course, a perfectly valid religious-liberty story about First Amendment rights. If Christians are going to insist on putting Nativity scenes on public property (as opposed, let's say, to every single church lawn in town, which might have a larger impact), then other religious groups get to dive into that same civic zone.
The vandalism is clearly wrong and police need to crack down. It would be the same as someone trashing the supposedly secular Menorah or, well, putting snarky junk in the supposedly secular Nativity scene. Journalists need to cover those stories.
However, when you look at the arguments unfolding in Texas and compare them with the events in Florida, you can see just how strange this particular battle in the public square is becoming:
Vandalism at the display has caused police to respond to the park eight times since the pentagram went up Dec. 6, police records show. ...
On Dec. 17, an officer spotted a woman who put a small bamboo cross on the pentagram. The woman said she was at the park for a Yoga class and felt a moral obligation to attach the cross. The officer removed the cross and explained to the woman that she'd need a permit to put anything on the pentagram.
The woman also said she was concerned that the city would allow the pentagram to be on display in the park.
It's clear that the woman opposed the presence of the pentagram -- period. She was trying to rewrite the laws on her own. That's bad.
However, you could argue that she was trying to make that particular exhibit more inclusive by adding the cross, so that the pentagram -- like that individual poster in the Texas school -- would be more inclusive. Right?
I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I simply wanted to show just how bizarre these Christmas wars issues can become. The key for journalists, even as the details become quite strange, is to find church-state experts who know the actual laws, people on the legal left and right. You'll find some areas of agreement, believe it or not. That's the heart of the story.