Merry Christmas Bill Goes to Texas Governor

Merry Christmas Bill Goes to Texas Governor

The Texas state senate passed the Merry Christmas Bill and it has now been sent to Governor Rick Perry for his signature.

The bill would clarify that schools may have Christmas trees, nativity scenes and other displays as long as any display includes a scene or symbol of more than one religion.

“This will provide students, parents, teachers and administrators a safe harbor for openly celebrating a federal holiday without fear of litigation or retribution,” said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. “Our school officials and teachers have enough on their plates without having to worry about frivolous lawsuits and retribution for recognizing Christmas or Hanukkah.” Nichols said the guidelines for exchange of greetings such as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah,” as well as the display of symbols marking those holidays, are consistent with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The legislation does prohibit a display relating to a traditional winter celebration from including a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief. After approval of the legislation, Nichols told other senators, “Thank you members and Merry Christmas to you all.”

Middle Finger Christmas Lights Win Court Case

Middle Finger Christmas Lights Win Court Case

Sarah Childs had a beef with her neighbor and wanted the whole world to know about it. So on her property in Denham Springs, Louisiana she put up a Christmas lights display that was sure to get everyone’s attention: her lights prominently showcased the image of a human hand with the middle finger extended. When the local police department threatened her the whole thing ended up in court. That case was settled with the ACLU winning $15,000 for attorney’s fees and an agreement that Childs can continue to “flip the bird” at her neighbors.

The display got plenty of attention when it first went up in November 2012. Neighbors called police to complain and Denham Springs Police Corporal Shawn Perkins paid her a visit.

Corporal Perkins told WWL Radio the homeowner told him she put the display as a direct message to her neighbors.

“It was a message to an ongoing dispute she was having with other homeowners on that same street,” Perkins said. Perkins says he informed Henderson that the display was in violation of obscenity laws and that it must come down, or else. She agreed that it wasn’t worth the possible hassle of fines and legal action,” Perkins said.

However, the ACLU of Louisiana soon waded into the fray after the story was broadcast in local and national media. The ACLU sent an open letter to the Denham Springs Police Department “to ensure that no such fines are levied or other penalties imposed if Childs chooses to reinstall her controversial holiday display.”

In that letter, the ACLU wrote: “The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal, which presides over Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, has specifically commented on the protected expressive nature of a middle finger extended in defiance or protest: “The thumbed nose, the projected middle finger, the Bronx cheer, the grimace and the smile are all conduct intended to convey a message that is sometimes made even more expressive by its bold freedom from a garb of words.” Davis v. Williams.”

With victory at hand Childs has given no indication of whether or not she will repeat the display.

Warren, Michigan Wins Suit Against FFRF

Warren, Michigan Wins Suit Against FFRF

Mayor Jim Fouts and the City of Warren, Michigan won a battle in the U.S. Sixth District Court in a fight against the Freedom from Religion Foundation which insisted that the city’s failure to allow an anti-Christian sign in the city’s Christmas display constituted discrimination and was a violation of their free speech rights.

As reported by Defend Christmas back in 2011 the FFRF wanted to post a sign that read “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”, similar to other signs the FFRF has posted in communities all across America. Mayor Fouts refused their request and the FFRF sued in court claiming discrimination and censorship.

The court agree with Fouts and the City of Warren concluding the U.S. Constitution “does not convert these displays into a seasonal public forum, requiring governments to add all comers to the mix and creating a poison pill for even the most secular displays in the process.” The court also upheld the constitutionality of Warren’s annual Christmas display, noting it features both secular and religious symbols alike.

“Such holiday displays are quintessentially government speech,” the panel wrote in a 3-0 vote, also stressing that it’s not illegal if an opposing view is kept out of a holiday display.

“If strict neutrality were the order of the day … the United States Postal Service would need to add all kinds of stamps, religious and nonreligious alike, to its December collection. Veterans’ Day would lead to pacifism Day, the Fourth of July to Non-patriots Day, and so on.”

The court case against the FFRF is an important victory for municipalities threatened by lawsuits by the FFRF. Often, intimidated by the expense and threat of lawsuits, cities cave to the requests of the FFRF and the resulting publicity each holiday season embarrasses cities as they inevitably become the focus of national media attention, potentially affecting tourism, commerce and public relations efforts. Most localities just want to honor time-tested traditions without the fuss of court fights.

For Mayor Fouts, the issue goes way beyond Christmas saying the decision is a “victory for freedom of religion.” Fouts was plain spoken when the city received the letter of threats from the FFRF, calling their sign “highly offense” and “mean spirited”. He told the group in a letter, disclosed in court documents, that he wouldn’t allow any displays to disparage any religion, “so I will not allow anyone or any organization to attack religion in general.”

Christmas Lights Head to Court in 2013

Christmas Lights Head to Court in 2013

The issue of Christmas lights is not a new one to us. From cities who have to abandon public displays of lights because of budget concerns to neighbors complaining about over-the-top displays the issue is not a new one. But as technology advances you have to question when it all becomes a little too much.

Out in the ritzy suburbs of Orange County a Fountain Valley woman made headlines for her display of Christmas lights honoring her husband, who passed away from cancer. 2012 was the second year of her display and this year it was bigger than before — more than 65,000 LED lights synchronized to loud music that blew away the neighbors and drew large festive crowds to the neighborhood. Here is one local news report:

For some, the light display can make an impact in other ways. A Louisiana woman used Christmas lights to craft an image of an extended middle finger pointed to her neighbor, who she accuses of stealing her dog. The local police ticketed the woman and forced her to take down the lights. She took it to court, backed by the ACLU, claiming First Amendment rights to justify the display. Here is another local news report (with the offending Christmas lights blurred out, ironically):

Christmas lights are STILL in the news even though Christmas has past. The first of media reports of people keeping their Christmas lights up too long has already been posted online where discussions of the difference between a “law” and an “ordinance” seems to subdue the fact that Christmas lights to some belong up and on only in December. This report comes from Maine.

Texas Atheist Sends a Star — and a Threat

Henderson County Texas was one of the hotspots in the War on Christmas last year and it appears to be looking to make headlines again. Last year an out-of-state group filed a protest with the county over a nativity scene on public grounds. The group was given a Texas-style welcome for their interference in what most consider a local matter that just happened to get national media coverage. But as Thanksgiving gives way to Christmas later this week all the same parties are back on the same page and Henderson County Texas is about to make news again.

Local atheist-turned-Christian-turned-atheist-again activist Patrick Greene is taking a different approach to the situation this year. Last year, when local Christian groups heard of a family health issue for the Greenes they collected money to help. The gesture so touched Greene that he briefly converted to Christianity before returning to his atheist beliefs. Greene was gracious in receiving the gift. But his feelings about the public Christmas displays in Athens, Texas require him to take a stand and he is trying to do so without the heavy handed tactics employed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation last year.

“I went to Walmart, bought a cardboard box, got some gift wrapping material and made up a sign that said, ‘This star is a gift from two Texas atheists, Merry Christmas,'” he said.

Greene is an atheist from San Antonio. He threatened to sue Henderson County last winter over the nativity scene on its courthouse lawn, which has been displayed each Christmas for more than a decade. But Greene backed off the suit when his health began to fail.

As a sign of Christian goodwill, a church in Athens raised money, and sent Greene hundreds of dollars to help him and his wife through the health scare. Greene said they were genuinely touched by the people’s “generosity and kindness,” so they bought a star for the county’s nativity scene. He sent the star in March.

“We were very appreciative,” he said.

Greene said his sign, which arrived at the office of the Keep Athens Beautiful president on Nov. 20, is meant to undo damage done by other atheists.

Last year, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation also threatened to sue if Henderson County did not remove the nativity display from county property. They also requested what’s called an “equal time” display. Their display would have included a banner with a message reading, “At this Season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Henderson County refused both requests.

Greene called the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s sign insulting.

“You don’t just push yourself into some place and insult people while you’re doing it,” he said. “We thought it was arrogant for Freedom From Religion Foundation to insult people, just to make a point.”

He said when he heard the county denied the foundation’s requests, “I told my wife that because of the animosity that grew toward atheists in general, that we should tell people – and make it a point – that atheists are the ones that gave them that star.”

So that’s when he went to Walmart, made his sign, and sent it, with his demand the sign be presented next to the star.

“We can’t risk any more animosity toward atheists by letting people think Christians are the ones that put the nativity scene there, and that Christians were the ones that put the star there,” he said.

Henderson County Attorney Clint Davis said once the county officially reviews Greene’s request, the county judge will have the final say on what to do with the sign.

“Typically, as we just did with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we have not allowed banners or signs of any kind,” he said. “The decorations we have to not have wordings, and they are simply decorations.”

If the sign and star are not displayed, Greene said he is drawing up a lawsuit that he will likely file against Henderson County this week or next week, claiming the entire Christmas display violates Texas Constitution because it infers the county is endorsing a religion.

“If people are insulted by my sign that said ‘atheist,’ then they have no intention of fostering the Christmas message, because goodwill toward men goes both ways,” Greene said.

Davis disputes Greene’s claims that the nativity scene violates Texas constitution.

“The county’s viewpoint is that we are in complete compliance with all the laws and all the regulations,” he said. “After a year-and-a-half into this, I’ve yet to have anybody from Henderson County that’s contacted me that said, ‘I’ve been personally offended by any display on county property.’ It’s all been from people from the outside. And that’s the frustrating thing when you think you’re doing everything right – everything you’re supposed to do – and you’re still subject to these attacks.”

Keep Athens Beautiful Executive Director Carol Morton said despite the distractions, the nativity scene will begin to be installed next week and the Light Up Athens Committee of Keep Athens Beautiful officially kicks off the Christmas season December 1.

“We’re here to make a beautiful display on the square for all the wonderful people in Henderson County and the city of Athens, so just come and have fun with us,” Morton said.