At this time of year, it is common for the ACLU to receive phone calls regarding religious displays on government property. Though, in recent years, the number of complaints has drastically decreased, there still seems to be some confusion around this issue.
The most recent complaint came from a resident of Berkley, Michigan. After discussions with the city manager and mayor, the following agreement was reached:
The ACLU will be meeting with the City Council in February in order to assist in developing a long-term solution to Berkley’s promotion of certain religions over others and promotion of religion over non-religion. In the meantime, the City is adding secular items to the display such as a Santa’s mailbox and snowmen in order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that nativity scenes and other religious symbols may be placed in a holiday display if there are other items to “secularize” the display.
In order to avoid these controversies in the future, we offer a few simple guidelines:
First, private individuals and organizations have a right to place Christmas displays — including nativity scenes — in front of their own homes, businesses or places of worship. This religious expression is a valued and protected part of the First Amendment rights guaranteed to all people in this country.
Second, governments should not be in the business of sponsoring religious displays. Religion does best when government stays out of the business of deciding which holidays and religions to promote. Religion belongs where it prospers best: with individuals, families and religious communities.
Third, cities may to decide to designate a public park as a public forum where private individuals may put up displays. If a public forum is created, individuals may erect nativity scenes, but the forum must be open to all types of expression, including unpopular messages.
To those who celebrate the Christmas holiday, the ACLU wishes you a Merry Christmas. To others, Happy Holidays. And to everyone, Happy New Year.