The religious right, many of whom decry “activist judges” when it comes to asserting gay rights, is not shy about using the courts to push their agenda as evidenced by legal challenges to the separation of church and state.
In Virginia, one family was rebuffed by a judge when they tried to force a school principal into allowing a student to sing a religious song called “The Prayer” at a graduation ceremony.
“Unlike a street corner or even a city council meeting, this is a closed forum,” said Robert MacFarland, a lawyer for the school officials. “Anyone doesn’t have the right to make a speech. The principal can restrict the content of that forum.”
There is also a more sinister reason behind the ban.
One unidentified School Board member told Ashby that if they allow his daughter to sing that song then they would have to allow “Muslims to stand up and say, “‘Oh, Allah, bless us, for there are planes with bombs on it so we can kill people, help us, oh God, Allah,”’ according to [the family’s] deposition.
[The father] responded that his daughter’s request was different because “we’re Christians,” two board members said in depositions.
So one side is afraid of giving Muslim’s free speech and the other thinks their religion gives them special privileges.
Still, the lengths to which some jurisdictions go to remove religious references seem extreme.
After years of legal assaults on municipal displays of Nativity scenes and Christmas observances in public schools, Christian groups are now mounting court challenges in the other direction. Doug Morgan said his son was a victim of “political correctness spiraling out of control.” He noted that the school had informed parents that only white paper plates and napkins — no Christmas red and green — would be allowed at the generic “Winter Break” party.
“They are so determined not to offend anyone,” he said, “that we’re being silenced and made to feel that what we want to share is not appropriate to share in a public environment.”
That is an increasingly common holiday sentiment, said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.
Twenty or 30 years ago, Sekulow said, the vast majority of lawsuits over Christmas displays were filed by secular groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, to block the placement of religious symbols on public property. Though there are still some gray areas, he said, those cases established fairly clear precedents about what does and does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.
…On Friday, the ACLJ persuaded officials in Pasco County, Fla., to reverse their decision to remove Christmas trees from all public buildings. Daniel R. Johnson, an assistant county administrator, said the removal had been triggered by a request from a resident to put a Hanukah menorah next to the Christmas tree in the public library.
At first, county officials feared that “if you open the door to one, then you must open the door to all, and not just during the holiday season, but all year long,” Johnson said. But on further review, he said, the county’s attorney decided there would be “little legal risk” in a temporary display of both a menorah and a Christmas tree, along with a sign saying they are symbols of “our legacy of freedom.”
In other cases across the country, Christian groups have argued in court this month against a New York City school policy that allows menorahs during Hanukah and the Islamic crescent during Ramadan but not Nativity scenes during Christmas. A federal judge in Florida on Wednesday ordered the town of Bay Harbor Islands to grant a resident’s request to erect a creche next to a local synagogue’s menorah on public property.
What’s not clear here is whether the menorah was on private or public property. If it was on private property, it seems the desire to put a crèche next to it is provocative. It’s as if Christians see the menorah as a challenge to them, rather than the simple freedom to express one’s religion when on private property.
In too many cases, aggression seems part of the mix.
…Anthony R. Picarello Jr., a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which works for greater freedom of religious expression, said it is not easy to say which side is truly the aggressor. “If these Christmas pageants and displays have been done for a long time and now there’s a push to exclude them, then it appears to be aggression from the left. If they haven’t been done and someone’s suing to add them, then it appears to be aggression from the right.”