Thomas More Society defends private rights to freely
express religious belief in public squares
This Christmas Season, Thomas More Society continues to fight for freedom of religious
speech and the free exercise of religious faith in the public square. As legal counsel for the American Nativity Scene Committee (ANSC) and local private groups around the country, the Society defends these rights and also equips Americans to display nativity scenes in their State Capitols and in other public venues that qualify as traditional and designated public forums. This year, along with ANSC, Thomas More Society is co-sponsoring nativity displays – which have been donated by an anonymous benefactor – in the State Capitols of Illinois, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Georgia, and Texas, and at the Governor’s Mansion in Oklahoma. Efforts continue to secure permits for such displays elsewhere around the nation.
The nativity displays represent classic free speech and free exercise of religious faith by private citizens in the public square. These displays, however, have not gone up without controversy.
“Atheist groups may mock our message, but we will not be silent as it is critical that Christians proclaim the Gospel message to their fellow citizens,” said Tom Brejcha, Thomas More Society president and chief counsel. “Anti-Christian, anti-Christmas rhetoric and Satanic expositions merely serve to provide sharp emphasis by means of their stark contrast with the positive, uplifting, hopeful and joyous message of Christmas – a message that bears secular as well as religious significance, as it highlights the hope and miracle of birth and new life, the inherent dignity of each and every human being, focusing our attention on the humble and lowly infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger amidst straw and animals, honored by shepherds and kings alike, and heralded by choirs of angels. That message of the essential equality and dignity of all human beings, no matter how rich or poor, humble or high-stationed, resonates deeply with the values that Americans cherish.”
Last Christmas, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and ACLU tried to force Franklin County in Indiana to dismantle the privately funded and privately sponsored Nativity Scene that has been displayed on its courthouse lawn (in addition to other private displays set up there from time to time throughout the year) every Christmas for over fifty years. Thomas More Society defeated FFRF and ACLU in federal court in Indianapolis, where the court rebuffed the atheist groups’ legally baseless claim that this private display was an “establishment of religion by the government.” On the contrary, the court ruled that the Christian citizens had a right to display a Nativity Scene on their local Courthouse lawn, which qualified as a “designated public forum.”
This controversy is not a new. Almost thirty years ago, a lawsuit had to be filed to protect the Nativity Scene (and to prevent physical destruction of the statues) on Daley Plaza in Chicago, when city and county officials tried to suppress the right of Christians to express their religious faith in that traditional public forum, where political rallies ethnic celebrations and other cultural events have been regularly staged. A private attorney, Jennifer Neubauer, had to file suit and persuade the late Chief U.S. District Judge James B. Parsons to enter a permanent injunction, enjoining the authorities from this “discrimination” against religious expression on Daley Plaza.
“The nativity displays represent a constitutionally protected expression by private citizens in traditional or designated public forums, where the sole role of the government is that of a viewpoint-neutral gatekeeper assuring open access for all citizens to have their ‘say,’” added Brejcha. “If the First Amendment entitles you to get up on your soapbox and plead for a candidate or advocate a political point of view in a public forum, then equally you may get on the soapbox and proclaim the joyous, hopeful message of the Christ Child!”
About the Thomas More Society:
Thomas More Society is a national not-for-profit public interest law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty. Headquartered in Chicago, the Society fosters support for these causes by providing high quality pro bono legal services from local trial courts all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
About the American Nativity Scene Committee:
The American Nativity Scene Committee is dedicated to the display of Nativity Scenes in every State Capitol throughout the United States during the Christmas season. The Committee ships nativity scenes (donated by a very generous anonymous benefactor) to private citizens all over the U.S. who wish to bear witness to the true meaning of Christmas by securing permits (with the Society’s legal help, if needed) to set up a nativity scene in their local public square.