Sunday, December 22, 2013

Happy Winter Solstice from the Christkindlemarkt!

So, we went to the Christkindlemarkt in Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago this afternoon after church. I was terribly disappointed, as there were so many people crammed into the plaza that no one could move. We couldn't even press our way through the crowd to get a mug of Gl├╝hwein. I was ticked off about this, and then I came across an interesting display on the east side of the plaza, near the nativity scene

It's a big wire-framed "A" lit with red "holiday" lights (calling them Christmas lights seems somewhat inappropriate). It says "Happy Winter Solstice". It says that Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) is the reason for the season. The display brightened my day, even though about half of the lights were dark, and I had to take a picture of my kids in front of it.

The display was placed by the atheists of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. You can read a short news article about the "A" here. They make a big deal saying that there can be no freedom of religion until government is completely separated from religion and it's influences. I agree. Sadly, as those on the political left often do, this group attempts to equate the public expression of religion and public displays of religious symbols with the government sanction and/or establishment of religion. We Christians often try to duck this argument, opting to go along to get along. If we allow what the Establishment Clause means to be redefined, however, we will wind up without the freedom of religion or the right to express our religious beliefs publicly.

Much is made of the fact that there is a “separation of church and state” built into the U.S. Constitution. This is not exactly true, at least not in the way those on the left purport it to be. The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. The term is an offshoot of the phrase, "wall of separation between church and state," as written by Thomas Jefferson in a now famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The original text of President Jefferson’s letter reads, in part:

"... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The Danbury Baptist Association wrote to Jefferson of their concerns regarding the lack of explicit protection of religious liberty in their own state constitution, and against a government establishment of religion. As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might establish a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities. Jefferson assured them that the U.S. Constitution would in no way permit such an establishment, and that “…religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…” This separation of church and state, as understood by Thomas Jefferson at least, had nothing whatsoever to do with public expressions of religion. To Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, separation of church and state had everything to do with the establishment of a national/state religious body, and avoiding the national/state oppression of religious minorities.

It wasn't until 1947 that the Supreme Court, albeit nebulously, defined just how the “wall of separation” was to be built. As a result of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), Neither state or local government can: 1) set up a church, 2) pass laws that aid one religion, all religions, or favor one religion over another, 3) force a person to attend or stay away from church, or believe in any religion, 4) punish a person for holding or professing religious beliefs, 5) levy a tax, in any amount, to support any religious activities or institutions, 6) openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organization, or vice-versa.

A second important test established by the Court, known as The Lemon Test, is taken from the case Lemon v. Kurtzman 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The test consists of three parts: 1) whether the law or conduct has a secular purpose, 2) whether the law or conduct has as its primary or principle effect advancing or inhibiting religion, and 3) whether it fosters an excessive entanglement of government with religion.

To the chagrin of the New Atheist movement, The Court has ruled that public displays of religious symbols, such as the Christian nativity scene or the Jewish menorah, do not constitute a breach of the Establishment Clause when they are all displayed together, and along with secular holiday symbols, in celebration of the national holiday of Christmas (yes, it is a national holiday, believe it or not).

The Christkindlemarkt (Christ child market) which is set up in Daley Plaza every year in Chicago is clearly a Christian event, complete with nativity scene. Alongside the nativity scene during Hanukkah each year is a large Jewish menorah. Any citizen or group who wishes to exercise their freedom of religious expression in this public space may do so (as the atheist group has demonstrated by the presence of their display) and the event is not in breach of the Establishment Clause. Should any religious or secular group be prohibited by government from exercising that freedom of expression at the Christkindlemarkt, however, it would then violate the Establishment Clause.

To say that there is no place in American society for public displays of religion or religious symbols, strictly because they are by nature religious (the so-called freedom "from" religion), is simply not justified by the U.S. Constitution, or by case law.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissenting opinion to the McCreary County, Kentucky, ET. Al. Petitioners v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky ET.Al. case, observed that the same week Congress submitted the Establishment Clause as part of the Bill of Rights for ratification by the States, it enacted legislation providing for paid chaplains in the House and Senate. Justice Scalia goes on to remind his fellow justices that, “The same Congress also reenacted the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, 1 Stat. 50, Article II of which provided: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’” And, it should not be overlooked that the First Amendment itself accords religion – and no other manner of belief – special constitutional protection. I am sure that the atheist activists at the Freedom From Religion Foundation would not agree that these early actions of Congress are equally valid today, since those on the Left generally consider the U.S. Constitution to be a “living, breathing document”, meaning that its interpretation changes as American society changes, and that moral values simply evolve along with society and culture and are therefore not absolute.

The views of American citizens, however, have not changed significantly where this issue of public expression of religion is concerned. Justice Scalia rightly points out that our Presidents continue to conclude their oath of office with the words, “So help me God.” The Congress opens each session with a prayer; those prayers are lead by official congressional chaplains. The Supreme Court opens its sessions with the prayer “God save the United States and this Honorable Court”. We have the phrase “In God We Trust” on our currency. When we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States we corporately acknowledge that we are one nation, under God. Justice Scalia finishes his thought with these words:

“As one of our Supreme Court opinions rightly observed, ‘We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’ Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952), repeated with approval in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 675 (1984); Marsh, 463 U.S., at 792; Abington Township, supra, at 213.”

I have no problem with the atheists, secular humanists, and free-thinkers exercising their right to free expression. I tolerate their "A". Whether they like it or not, the atheists have to tolerate my public nativity scene. It establishes Christianity as a national religion about as much as their half-hearted display establishes Sol Invictus as America's supreme being.