The Reindeer Rule

Christmas is coming, and for towns and municipalities across the nation 'tis the season to be worried—worried about lawsuits, that is. Local officials in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., were so worried that they banned religious carols at their annual Christmas celebration last week. "Frosty the Snowman" and "Jingle Bells" were okay, but not "The First Noel" or "Joy to the World." What made officials so skittish is that last year Vienna was the target of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for allowing a local group to set up a Nativity scene in front of a community center. The town had been careful to add secular displays as well: plastic reindeers, Santas, and snowmen. This was in accord with a 1985 Supreme Court ruling known as the "reindeer rule," which requires any religious display on public property to be balanced by secular displays, to avoid any hint that the state is endorsing religion. But in Vienna the careful balancing act was all for naught. The ACLU charged that, in spite of the Santas and reindeer, the creche was still the primary focus of the display and hence violated the separation of church and state. Now, the Supreme Court hadn't said anything about primary focuses, but no matter: A federal judge sided with the ACLU, and the creche was taken down. This year the controversy was about Christmas carols. At the advice of nervous lawyers, Vienna officials banned all religious songs at the annual town celebration. In protest, the Vienna Choral Society withdrew from the program. And on the day of the festivities, 200 people massed in the parking lot across the street to hold a counter-celebration. They erected a creche and lifted their voices in song: "Away in the Manger," "Silent Night," and all the well-loved carols. A few protesters brought banners. One banner said: "A baby in a manger, or a fat guy in a red suit? The choice is yours." Another banner took aim at the ACLU. "The ACLU is jealous of manger scenes," it read, "because it doesn't have three wise men or a virgin in its organization." It was a well-aimed jab. But all humor aside, I will never forget the pathos of the image on the news that evening. The protesters were huddled behind barricades—carefully keeping their feet off public property—praying and singing their carols. Instead of Christmas joy, the atmosphere was one of confrontation and protest. I was grieved. Have we really come to this? Here in the shadow of the nation's capitol, the beacon of religious freedom for the whole world, Christians are having to fight for the right to sing traditional religious carols. The image recalled scenes from Eastern Europe before the fall of communism. Christians, take heed. If we don't speak out against the secularization of society—if we stand by quietly while the ACLU takes away our rights one by one—then America will lose what our forefathers called the First Liberty: freedom of religion. And then the posters raised by the protesters will no longer apply—because we won't have a choice any more. Instead of being able to choose the baby in a manger, we will be left with only a fat man in a red suit.  


Chuck Colson



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