With Thanksgiving 2012 but a distant memory, it seems the Christmas season in Chicago is now full blown even though it isn’t even December yet. Most people have been getting into the holiday spirit, but there are always a few party poopers out there who seem to loathe any reminders of the reason for the season. The tone of those who oppose public expressions about Christmas often hold the attitude “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!” to quote Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”. Although unwelcomed, we can understand why those of other faiths and secular non-religious people aren’t keen on Christmas displays. Other anti-Christmas sentiments seem less likely, such as city officials in Arlington Heights, Illinois? They’d welcome Christmas displays in this wholesome all-American suburb, right? Think again. It seems that Arlington Heights officials could use a visit from Jacob Marley and three spirits this year.
The Arlington Heights Park District has an annual “holiday season” display every winter, and this year’s display includes more than more than 70,000 colored lights, bears, toys soldiers, a sleigh, and Frosty the Snowman. It was unveiled last Friday evening at the village’s annual tree-lighting ceremony, and runs through Jan. 6. What you won’t see in the village park district is a manger scene with baby Jesus, or any type of Nativity display for that matter. Why not? Village officials won’t allow one. “The board came back with ‘We just don’t want to make any change at this time,” said Jim Finnegan, co-chairman of the Illinois Nativity Scene Committee, when they asked the village for permission to display a Nativity scene inside the park on Friday.
Village officials aren’t commenting further, but apparently the official reason they gave for banning the Nativity display but allowing other “holiday season” imagery is that this year’s theme for the display is “children’s toys”, and that “religious displays” would be “inappropriate” for the setting. The explanation has failed to satisfy critics. For starters, the toys theme has been the same for the past 21 years, according to Steve Scholten, the executive director of the Park District. Nativity displays have never been barred in the past. Regarding the secular nature of the display, critics noted there are a number of “display pieces” that have religious imagery, including Hanukkah dreidels. “I see three dreidels just a few feet away from me here, and that’s a Jewish symbol,” she said. “It feels like there’s a lot of space here. They could just include everybody”, noted Catherine Meyer, a resident of Arlington Heights. She said the park’s board should reverse its decision.
Is Arlington Heights just following the lead of other local and state government officials that shy away from religious imagery at Christmas time? You think that might sadly be the case in Illinois, but the answer is no. In fact, one of the arguments being used to counter the Arlington Heights ban is that similar religious displays for Christmas are common around Illinois government property, including Nativity scenes being put up at the Daley Plaza in Chicago, and at the state Capitol in Springfield. A Nativity display has been used at the Daley Plaza for nearly three decades, without any problems from city officials. Likewise, state officials allow a Christmas Nativity display in the Rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol, and have used the same Nativity set for five years in a row. The display features marble-like figures of the Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
For those who would argue “Separation of Church and State!”, it should be noted that all of these displays – along with the one barred by Arlington Heights officials – are privately sponsored and funded projects, protected by U.S. Constitution in the clause allowing free expression of religion. Tom Brejcha, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Society in Chicago, noted “So long as these Christmas religious displays and ceremonies are privately sponsored, funded, and held in traditional public forums, they are constitutionally protected” He added “Even the ACLU concedes that our Capitol Rotunda Nativity Scene is fully protected by the First Amendment. Christians have as much right to proclaim the joyful message of Jesus Christ’s birth as political candidates have to get up on soap boxes to spout their own messages in our public squares.” Jim Finnegan noted that what Arlington Heights officials have essentially done is say that situation in which what’s good for Daley Plaza and the State Capitol isn’t good enough for Arlington Heights. “And yet, clearly, the First and the Fourteenth Amendment spells it out as clearly as you could want it”, he explained.
The Chicago-based Thomas More Society, on behalf of former Arlington Heights resident Jim Finnegan, is striking back against the unfair censorship by Arlington Heights officials and sent a letter this week to Park District Commissioners and government officials asking that the privately funded Nativity scene be allowed in the public North School Park. His complaint read in part: “You cannot delete ‘Christ’ from ‘Christmas.'” Various news reports this week said the complaint was being handled by the Park District’s attorneys, and that Arlington Heights officials declined to comment further. Arlington Heights simply said their attorneys are in negotiations and would comment later.
Founded in 1997, the Thomas More Society is named after the famous Catholic saint and martyr Thomas More. They are a national public interest law firm that seeks to restore respect in law for life, marriage, and religious liberty. They are also a nonprofit organization wholly supported by private donations. “There’s plenty of room in this park” noted the group’s President, Thomas Brejcha “We don’t want to threaten anybody, but these are important, fundamental, First Amendment rights. And we expect that the village will say yes“. If not, Brejcha says their next meeting might be in court. The Thomas More Society also noted they will offer free legal help to any other individuals or citizen groups that run into opposition putting up similar Nativity Scenes — privately sponsored and funded — in any traditional public forum in their own towns, villages, or hamlets in Illinois or elsewhere. The Society can be reached at (312) 782-1680 or online at http://thomasmoresocietyofamerica.org/
Some people have scoffed in the past when Christians have used terminology like “the war on Christmas” and complained that there are people in power that wish to censor Christian imagery during the Christmas season and any reminder of the religious origins of the holiday. They counter-argue that replacing the phrase “Merry Christmas” with a generic one like “Happy Holidays” is not trying to hide Christmas from anyone, but merely trying be “inclusive” and welcome to everyone in America. Yet the situation in Arlington Heights reminds us that the idea of “inclusion” for some government entities is to include everyone except the people who originated the holiday – namely, practicing Christians and Catholics. Arlington Heights even has a “holiday tree” up, and presents have been placed under the tree, but not a Nativity scene among the other distinctly Christian decorations by the tree. Why are they so opposed to a display that reminds people Christmas was created to honor the birth of Christ?
I would recommend that my faithful readers handle this situation the same way I said Chicago residents should react to the Chick-Fil-A ban in Chicago’s 1st Ward. If Arlington Heights officials do not allow a Christmas display in their town, why should anyone be shopping Christmas presents there? Christians and Catholics should consider spend their money elsewhere. Other Illinois towns respect freedom of expression and the right to exercise religion, so when will Arlington Heights?