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Should Atheists Challenge Nativity Scenes during Christmas Holidays?

Church/State Separation vs. Christmas Holiday Displays


Every Christmas there's a flurry of conflicts over nativity displays on public property. All across America, conservative Christians push to have their religion privileged with special religious displays of nativity scenes while other displays are excluded. Atheists and secularists challenge these practices, even including filing lawsuits to either have creches removed or for the public spaces to be opened to all citizens equally. But should atheists do this? Some object to these challenges, but their arguments are flawed at best.

Nativity Scenes Aren't Important, Don't Merit Time, Money, Resources

A common objection to challenging nativity scenes is that such challenges aren't worth the time and effort. It's certainly wise for atheists to pick their battles carefully, but most people and organizations are capable of working on more than one issue at a time. Is getting nativity scenes off government property the most important thing atheists could be doing? Perhaps not, but that's no reason why it cannot be on our to-do list. It is a genuine question of church-state separation that warrants attention and discussion.

Challenging Nativity Scenes Is Bad for Public Relations

Another common objection to atheists challenging nativity scenes is that such challenges make atheists look bad, thus increasing animosity and discrimination against nonbelievers. The problem with this objection is that atheists are already a despised minority — and it's not simply because we ask elected officials to follow the law. Embracing religious displays during Christmas isn't going to change that one bit.

This objection is not just unpersuasive; it's also ethically troubling once one considers its broader implications. Should atheists generally stay silent and endure the bigotry that comes our way if doing so would help our image? Should atheists always avoid challenging or questioning things that are popular? The problem faced by atheists is not one of PR; it is one of bigotry and meekly submitting to the demands of bullying majorities has never been an effective tactic for reducing prejudice and bigotry against a minority.

Nativity Scenes Are Part of Christmas Holidays

Apologists for nativity displays during the Christmas holiday season also sometimes argue that those displays are a necessary and integral part of the holidays which large numbers of people enjoy. In essence, this is an argument from popularity: religious nativity displays should remain under the umbrella of government sponsorship simply because they are popular, or at least popular among Christians.

This objection completely ignores all legal and constitutional questions and it's not one which would be accepted as a general principle. Since when does the popularity of some government action or practice cause it to be legal or constitutional? Why should atheists ignore the legal issues simply because nativity scenes are popular?

Nativity Scenes are Traditional

As with so many other cases of church/state separation, Christian apologists frequently argue that nativity displays are legal and legitimate because they are traditional. This is horrible as a legal argument because tradition has no legal standing. When offered not as a legal argument in the context as a court case, but simply as a reason for atheists to not pursue confrontation, the argument still doesn't work. Tradition alone cannot justify any practice or invalidate any challenge to a practice — something that's "traditional" must be defended on its merits, if it has any. So atheists cannot be expected to defer to some religious practice merely because it's become traditional.

Nativity Scenes Aren't Really Religious/Sectarian

An increasing common defense of Christian privileges is the idea that some traditional practice is actually secular rather than religious and therefore atheists have no basis for mounting a legal challenge. For some reason, this argument has also started to appear in the context of nativity displays, as if a creche depicting the birth of Jesus could ever be construed as remotely secular. The religious nature of nativity scenes is so obvious and unambiguous that it's difficult to treat people offering it as credible and honest.

Nativity Scenes are Protected by the First Amendment

Atheist challenges to nativity scenes are also criticized as restrictions on Christians' freedom of speech. This is a potentially credible argument, but it fails because it ignores the role of government in the speech in question. No atheists have challenged nativity displays which appear on private property, like personal homes or churches. Instead, all of the challenges have been to displays that appear in public spaces like parks or in front of court houses. It's no longer a simple question of free speech when nativity displays are given special status that's unavailable to displays from other groups.

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