Every year around the holidays, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, confers its Ebenezer Award for the most egregious and absurd effort to expel faith from the public square. This year's winner is a rather unusual lights display on the lawn of the county courthouse in Kokomo, Indiana
The display was a decidedly un-holiday mix of marine life, cryptozoological creatures, and a strange woodpecker-fire truck combination. Missing: a Christmas tree, a Nativity, and Santa Claus -- that is, anything that might link the agglomeration of colored bulbs to a certain impending holiday.
At the sight of the bizarre collection of lit figures, Kokomo residents complained. How does a bright pink whale with a gleaming yellow spout represent Christmas? How does a cartoonish Loch Ness Monster evoke the holiday spirit? Howard County, Indiana, Commissioner Tyler Moore told an Indianapolis television station that the thematic incoherence of the holiday lawn display was deliberate: "If we put the religious or Christmas decorations up, we'd be offending a whole other group of citizens and taxpayers."
The proper first response to this argument is a demand for data. Where is the evidence that Howard County, Indiana, or the town of Kokomo, contain meaningful populations hostile to visible reminders of Christmas on public property? Is this not an example of a public official practicing defensive decorating? Does the law prohibit the display of explicit reminders of faith-based holidays on public property?
Fortunately, we have answers to these questions, thanks to a court case pursued and won by a courageous mayor, and the Becket Fund itself, exactly ten years ago. ACLU v. Schundler pitted the American Civil Liberties Union against the civil liberty guaranteed the faithful in the public square. Defending that freedom was Jersey City, New Jersey, Mayor Bret Schundler, who was sued by the ACLU for erecting a menorah and a crèche in front of city hall. Then-Mayor Schundler retained the Becket Fund, and over several years, they waged a successful fight against the repressive ideology that would eliminate faith's presence from the public square -- even in its most innocuous and celebratory forms.
ACLU v. Schundler was won in February 1999, when a Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge named Samuel Alito affirmed that "none of these displays [of holiday crèches and menorahs] conveyed a message of government endorsement of Christianity, Judaism, or of religion in general but instead 'sent a message of pluralism and freedom to choose one's own beliefs.'"
Case closed? Not entirely. It's a testament to the courage of Schundler and the work of the Becket Fund that this decision still stands on its tenth anniversary. But the questions of faith in the American public square, as old as our republic, won't go away -- and neither will the opponents of faith's presence. In the eyes of public officials fearful of lawsuit or illusory offense, a chilling effect remains.
That's why the deeply unpopular courthouse-lawn display in Kokomo, Indiana, was only one of several candidates for this year's Ebenezer Award. Runners-up include cases like last month's Stratechuk v. Board of Education, in which the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals -- the same in which ACLU v. Schundler was won -- upheld a New Jersey school district's ban on holiday music with religious content at school-sponsored concerts. In Santa Ana, California, the Orange County Superior Court removed a Christmas tree from its grounds, breaking with a 20-year tradition, after a single complaint. In Frankfort, Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear has re-christened -- if the term is appropriate -- the state capitol's Christmas tree a "holiday tree."
Perhaps most outrageous among the runners-up is the banning of a live Nativity scene from a parish property in Manchester, Massachusetts. The First Parish Church there faces the town common, and the selectmen are afraid of a legal challenge.
There are many models for accommodating a diversity of faiths in the public square, and excluding it altogether is among the worst. That exclusion doesn't just lead to holiday lawn displays that are exceedingly tacky: it engenders a sense and practice of petty repression, and an endless succession of legal and policy squabbles that alienate far more than any holiday display ever could.
Religious liberty is truly America's first freedom, and it is not, as Howard County, Indiana, Commissioner Tyler Moore said, a freedom from offense. It is a freedom of the most profound expression possible: that of basic moral values and the foundation of conscience and consciousness. The garish display in Kokomo wins this year's Ebenezer Award partly for its deliberate non-commemoration of the holiday season -- but mostly for embodying the incomprehension of our most fundamental liberty.
Ken Blackwell was Ohio's Secretary of State from 1999-2007. He serves on the Board of the Club for Growth, and as a visiting law professor at Liberty University. He resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.