It is not a bit too early to start thinking about what will no doubt again be called the atheists’ “War on Christman.”
The forces of tyranny neither slumber nor sleep, and even now, at this season, are working on imposing their mythology on the conspirators of the irreligious, on those aided by godless activist judges who, the fanatics feel, are intent on forcing upon a free people the radical doctrine of “Separation of State and Church.” They tell us that such judges have ordered that the idols of the local god not be displayed on public property unless the sacred be modulated and debased by myths of the secular.
And thus we arrive at the story of “Baby Jesus Meets the Three Reindeer Rule.”
What is a Baby Jesus? It is a fable. A precious little story set out in the bible about the imaginary son of god whose father god conceived him in the body of an unwed underage teenager, the goddess Virgin Mary. God made the Baby Jesus so he could grow up and be killed as a child sacrifice to his god father for your sins. B.J.’s birthday is celebrated by Christians as “Christ’s Mass,” or Christmas, an odd holiday that is at once both completely Christian and completely secular, and the only religious celebration officially recognized by the U. S. Government as a legal holiday.
Pious Christians think we have always celebrated Christmas. Not so. Those cute Pilgrims little kids color in Sunday School, while their parents are in the sanctuary learning to be more judgmental, banned Christmas. Congress met on December 25th. It was a regular business day. Until Queen Victoria hauled a tree into her palace, Charles Dickens wrote about Scrooge and delicate little Tiny Tim whining “God bless us every one,” Reverent Clement Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” incorrectly called “The Night Before Christmas,” and Frank Church lying to a child in his letter “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause.” Add Thomas Nash’s drawings in “Harper’s Weekly,” and a few more things, and the modern Christmas, made to look ancient, was up and snorting.
Among the new fake ancient symbols of a Christmas heritage that never was is the beloved “creche,” or “manger scene.” This is a manufact of three dimensional living, or fake, figures representing the Baby Jesus in a feed trough, surrounded by his mother the teenage goddess Virgin Mary, his cuckolded wanna be father, Joseph, sheep, shepherds, lambs, sheep crooks in the shape of candy canes, a star, angels, a cow, a jackass, some straw, and three terrorists with camels bearing gifts to the “Christ Child.” Point of grammar. The terrorists are bearing the gifts. The camels are bearing the terrorists. A creationist version of the sacred scene includes a stegosaurus. This godly diorama is often offered on public property in open violation of the First Amendment.
The problems, legal, historical, and theological, with such displays are many and varied, and beyond the ken of many believers. “Traditional” manger scenes are not correct even from the text of the holy mythology. The Second Commandment prohibits the making or worshiping of graven images or likenesses of living things. Roman Catholics, who like to worship graven images, are exempt because they simply delete the Second Commandment, thereby sidestepping that little problem. Others ignore it, as well as the contradictory images presented in the display that impossibly merge the biblical gospels of Luke and Matthew.
In the book of Luke, the pregnant teenager and the cuckold travel from their home in Nazareth, in Galilee, to Bethlehem, in Judah, where the child of the god is born and laid in a food trough, and angles appear to sheep herders who go to the food trough to worship the god child. After this, the “Holy Family” goes back home to Nazareth and we hear nothing more about B.J. for the next twelve years or so.
In the book of Matthew, the teenager and the cuckold and the Baby Jesus live in Bethlehem all along, and the terrorists get to their house when B.J. is no longer a baby but a child about two years old. The terrorists have been following a star that comes to rest above the B.J.’s house, apparently visible to everyone but King Herod who asks the terrorists where the kid is, and when they don’t tell him evil King Herod kills all the two year old little boys in Bethlehem, except B.J., who has fled in the company of the teenager and the cuckold to Egypt until Herod is dead and then they relocate in Nazareth, where we hear nothing more about B.J. for the next twelve years or so. That’s what the bible says. And it doesn’t say there were three terrorists, just that there were terrorists “from the East.”
Moving right along in this educational adventure, a Christmas reindeer is a phantasmagorical volitant ungulate. Sort of a Pegasus with a rack and no wings. Eight of them, excluding the pretender “Rudolph,” pull the flying sleigh of one “Santa,” an anagram for “Satan,” around the world to provide reward and gifts to proper children, and shame and ashes to evil ones, before the dawn of Christmas morn. We should note that according to Rev. Clement Moore, Santa is a smoker. This pagan myth is set out more fully in my monograph “On Christmas, or, No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Clause,” contained in my book “Baubles of Blasphemy,” available at a most reasonable price from American Atheists and Amazon.com
But I digress. It is just plain not lawful for the state to display religious symbols, like a creche, no matter what the fundangelicals think and what they would like to change our history to reflect. But it is lawful to display secular symbols like Santa and reindeer, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the Baby Jesus. So, for a number of years, city officials, desiring to unlawfully promote the Christian religion on public property with public funds, have put a plaster or plastic Baby Jesus and other Christmas religious images on public squares and have gotten sued by humorless outfits like American Atheists.
This occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio. The city put up a display of Baby Jesus and company on Fountain Square in the middle of downtown. Some Jews then put got city permission put up a menorah. The Ku Klux Klan then wanted to put up a KKK cross, got denied the right to do so by the city, sued, and won. They put up a cross. The cross got trashed. There was a lot of ugliness, and so the Free Inquiry Group put up a “Wall of Separation,” with that quote from Thomas Jefferson. To settle the squabble, the constitutional methodology developed that public forums have to either keep it all out or let it all in.
Rather than save much time and money by the most reasonable solution of keeping it all out of the public square, and letting people do whatever they were big enough to do on their own property, most communities decided to waste the little money they had on lawyers to try to continue to promote religion in public with public funds.
There then came to be developed the compromise in the law, created by those activist judges, that has come to be known as “The Three Reindeer Rule.” Basically put, this means that if there are enough secular images of Christmas in public displays at Christmas time, like three plastic reindeer, then you can add the Baby Jesus without doing violence to the Constitution or running afoul of the law. Put another way, Baby Jesus is religious but reindeer are not.
For the intellectually curious or compulsive, the U.S. Supreme Court case that created the rule is Lynch v. Donnelley, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). The legal term for the test, known informally as “the three reindeer rule,” is the “endorsement” test. In a concurring opinion, and as the controlling swing vote, Justice O’Conner stated that, as she saw it, the “central issue” in the Lynch case was whether the city “endorsed Christianity by its display of the creche.” This legal reasoning is in line with the earlier three-pong Lemon test, of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 42 U.S. 602 (1971). Mr. Lemon has spoken to American Atheists. Under the Lemon test, courts should determine “whether the challenged law or conduct has a secular purpose, whether its principal or primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, and whether it creates an excessive entanglement of government with religion.”
In Lynch, Justice O’Connor found that the creche, set up by the city, was placed among enough other objects that were secular in nature, like a Santa Claus House, reindeer, a Christmas tree, colored lights, etc. to get around the obvious fact that the city was trying to establish a religion. Baby Jesus a secular display indeed! And thus doth the Baby Jesus meet the Three Reindeer Rule. And that, beloved, is how your city government can legally put Christ back into Christmas. After all, the law has to kinda act like it is trying to be fair, doesn’t it?
A real test of whether some city is trying to establish a religion or not, by their public property displays of Baby Jesus and company around the Winter Solstice, would be to see if the city would be willing to put up everything but the Jesus part. Suggest that to your preacher and watch him ring them bells.
If you think this explanation of current controlling law does not make sense, you are of course correct. It does not make sense, any more than the twin rulings of the Supreme Court that you can’t put up the Ten Commandments in public places in Kentucky but you can display them publicly on a monument in Texas make sense. Yes, there are distinctions. But these may well be distinctions without differences.
At least the legal rule is easier to understand than the doctrine of the Trinity.
Edwin Kagin © 2012