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Christmas displays are a public forum, so more should get involved

On the lawn of the old courthouse in downtown Brooksville last week, a wooden sign quotes Scripture celebrating Christ’s birth.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

On the lawn of the old courthouse in downtown Brooksville last week, a wooden sign quotes Scripture celebrating Christ’s birth.

I have a clear least favorite among the Christmas cards that show up on the lawn of the old courthouse in downtown Brooksville this time of year.

I'm talking not about standard cards, but the 4- by 8-foot plywood variety, and the one I have in mind carries not a greeting but a brief lecture from Christ, the last part of which is underlined in red for the benefit of us slow learners:

"Keep in mind, no matter how you celebrate Christmas, It's still my birthday."

Christ is also identified as the "Savior of all people" — whether you like it or not, basically. And, as pictured on this card, he looks as stern as Uncle Sam on a military recruiting poster.

That's actually not a bad comparison because the assumption seems to be that there's a war on Christmas and that the folks at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church had no choice but to fire off this defensive salvo.

But the evidence to the contrary is right here in this very display: There is no war on Christmas. Nobody is stopping anybody from expressing their thoughts about the season, even overtly religious thoughts, on highly visible public ground. Hernando County has allowed these cards to be erected here for at least the last 20 years.

It's true that in the past there has been saber rattling of the kind that tends to get conservative Christians fired up. In the late 1990s, a self-described atheist wrote a couple of angry letters to the county, claiming the displays violated the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state.

I appreciate that he was on the lookout for this sort of thing; generally, we need more of that around here.

But in this case he was wrong. These cards are protected under the "public forum doctrine," said deputy county attorney Jon Jouben.

Governments can allow religious speech as long as they allow all religious speech. In fact, they get in trouble if they don't allow it, which shows bias against religious rather than secular expression.

Legal principles become firmer every time they are heard in court, Jouben said, and "this has been litigated about 8 billion times."

Which means that if you fear a war on Christmas — don't.

So the only remaining question about the display on the courthouse lawn is this: Is everyone truly welcome?

Absolutely, said Christie Williams, the events coordinator for the county, who has been involved with the courthouse displays since 2000 and remembers one card that carried the message: "Smile, Buddha loves you."

Back in 1997, former Times columnist Jan Glidewell wrote — approvingly, of course — that a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, P-FLAG, had been allowed to put up a Christmas greeting.

So, it was a little disappointing this year not to see much of this sort of thing.

We might still, because more billboards are on the way, Williams said. But when I checked last week, there was nothing from either the Islamic Center of Hernando County or the county's only synagogue, Temple Beth David.

I'm not talking about defiant, in-your-face displays such as the ones atheists have insisted on erecting in Tallahassee and Chicago this year, and which are at least as divisive as the finger-wagging note from the folks at Holy Trinity Lutheran.

I'm talking about something that might help us get in the true Christmas spirit even as sweat rolls down our foreheads.

Maybe next year, said Temple Beth David's rabbi, Lenny Sarko.

"Peace on earth is a good thing; good will toward men is a good thing, regardless of your religion," Sarko said.

Amen.

Christmas displays are a public forum, so more should get involved 12/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 1:25pm]
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