ACLU on the so-called “War on Christmas”

It's the magical season again when a generous spirit fills the air, and the media are abuzz with stories of the purported "War on Christmas." The American Civil Liberties Union receives dozens of notes from across the country. Some kindly wish us a Merry Christmas, while others resort to taunting, name-calling and threats.

However, each note reminding us of the spirit of Christmas fails to remember the spirit of the most fundamental freedom guaranteed by our Bill of Rights: the right of each and every American to practice his or her own religion, or no religion at all. The framers of our Constitution believed religious liberty can only flourish if government leaves religion alone, and the ACLU continues to defend this bedrock of democracy.

James Madison was the first to express the fundamental values underlying the Establishment Clause when he made his speech "Memorial and Remonstrance" in 1786, after Patrick Henry, in Virginia, proposed a bill to tax citizens to pay for religion. Madison led the opposition, arguing that when government gets involved in religion, religion suffers.

The United States does the best job in the world of protecting religion. Religion thrives in the American public sphere: Religious leaders preach on television and radio; religious books and magazines are a multibillion-dollar business; we have churches, synagogues and mosques of every kind.

That we do not have religious wars says something significant about the extent of our tolerance for each other's beliefs. When there are so many places to display religious imagery, the issue is not "religion in the public sphere"; it is whether government property is the proper place for religious expression.

So for every card questioning our commitment to religious freedom, I will remind myself of Abbey Moler, a Christian high school valedictorian, whom we represented because she was censored by school officials in her yearbook for using a Biblical verse in her "words of wisdom." I will remember our client, Joseph Hanas, a Flint man who was forbidden from practicing Catholicism at a court-ordered drug rehabilitation program run by the Pentecostal Church. And I will think of the ACLU's case in Pennsylvania that successfully defended the right of an African-American evangelical church to occupy a building purchased in a predominantly white parish.

The ACLU will be here to defend your religious freedom, whatever your faith or whether you practice a religion at all. We wish those of you who celebrate Christmas a warm and happy one, and a wonderful New Year to all.

This piece first appeared in the December 18, 2006 edition of the Detroit News.

By Kary L. Moss, Executive Director, ACLU of Michigan