As surely as silver bells ring and halls get decked the arrival of the Christmas season will reignite controversy over the expression of Christian religious beliefs in the public square. Despite the fact that Christmas is, at its core, a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, there are those who strive mightily to scrub any reference to the son of God from the holiday.
Typically the debate centers on the perceived constitutional right of non-believers to not be subjected to religious themes. In reality what is occurring is an all-out assault on the actual constitutional rights of Christians who are engaging in the "free exercise" of both religion and speech.
The rights of Christians attempting to celebrate a major religious holiday are what are being abridged, not the rights of non-believers. Over the years the debate has been framed exactly backward as atheists and others assumed the mantle of victimhood and played upon misperceptions of what the constitution actually says.
The constitution does not erect a wall of separation between church and state. It does prohibit the "establishment of religion." That clause was born of the framers desire not to have a government sanctioned church such as existed in the mother country, England, from whom they had just won independence.
Further, the constitution does guarantee the "free exercise" of religion. Here is where those seeking to remove Christ from the celebration of Christmas trample the rights of Christian believers. And, while the constitution does prohibit the establishment of a state religion, it does not guarantee anybody the right to be insulated from those engaged in the free exercise of their religious rights.
In a nation where Christians are constantly exhorted to be tolerant of other faiths, with the emphasis most recently on Islam, stifling the celebration of the Christian religion has become acceptable, even encouraged in many quarters. Thus we are subjected to such actions as renaming Christmas trees holiday trees. The fact is a Christmas tree is no more a holiday tree than a Menorah is a holiday candelabra. It has a religious connotation, and in the case of this symbol, a somewhat secularized one. To deny the display of the tree is to deny a constitutional right.
In recent years Chester County in southeastern Pennsylvania has been a battleground over the placement of a Christmas tree on the court house grounds. This year commissioners have taken a stand and erected a Christmas tree and a Menorah in celebration of the Christian and Jewish holidays.
Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell told a Philadelphia television station: "Our decision was to take back the display, do what is traditional, doing what the Supreme Court said we can do." In fact, they are doing what the constitution says they can do.
In past years commissioners have sought to placate militant atheists by allowing the placement of a "Tree of Knowledge" alongside the religious displays. This year the Tree of Knowledge will not be allowed and, predictably, there are howls of protest. Not only is the Tree of Knowledge not a religious symbol, and therefore not constitutionally protected, but the insistence of erecting it during the celebrations of Christmas and Hanukah is a deliberate attempt to provoke.
Ironically, the term "Tree of Knowledge" has a Biblical basis. In Genesis 2:16-17 God commanded Adam: "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." It seems the atheists cannot escape God no matter how hard they try.
This Christmas season it is time for Christians to change the terms of the debate. The celebration of the Lord's birth is our constitutional right. We should not allow that right to be denied, or even curtailed, by those who simply use our holiday to further their own political agenda.
So put up a Christmas tree and call it exactly that; sing those Christmas Carols that tell and celebrate the story of Christ's birth, do an act of charity in His name, and when you meet someone on the street wish them a Merry Christmas.
And to you, a very Merry Christmas!
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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