Many of the good folks of Knightstown, Indiana, are in a lather.
They’re upset because the town has had to pull down a cross that sat atop an evergreen in the town square. Every year, the tree is decorated for the holidays.
This year, a Knightstown resident sought the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana to prevent the town from putting the cross on the tree. The ACLU filed suit and, amid some harrumphing, the town retreated.
“It is with regret and sadness that the Knightstown Town Council has had the cross removed from the Christmas tree on the town square and is expected to approve a resolution at the next council meeting stating they will not return the cross to the tree,” the council posted on Facebook.
That didn’t please some Knightstown residents. They put crosses up in their yards. They rallied at the square.
“This is the demonstrative of the erosion of free expression of religion,” a local minister told The Indianapolis Star.
“It’s my hope in the future, someone would be able to put forward the case under the First Amendment, that such displays do not violate the establishment of the First Amendment.”
Several things need to be said here.
The first is that I should disclose that I’m a former executive director of the ACLU of Indiana.
The second is that this issue has been before the nation’s courts over and over and over again. And again and again and again the courts have ruled the same way. The courts have said government has no business deciding what religions it likes and what religions it doesn’t.
That’s likely the real reason the Knightstown Council threw in the towel and pulled the cross down. Their lawyers told the council members they were going to spend a lot of taxpayer money fighting a battle they were destined to lose.
The third thing is that this debate isn’t about faith. It’s about government.
No one is trying to stop individuals from expressing their faith, Christian or otherwise. No one is attempting to stop private citizens from putting crosses, nativity scenes or representations of Jesus in their yards, on their windows or atop their roofs.
What they are trying to do is stop government from elevating one faith – or, for that matter, any faith – above another.
I know it is part of religious right’s propaganda effort to argue that the ACLU has “declared war” on Christmas and religion.
If that were true, then the ACLU clearly doesn’t know how to fight. By my count, the ACLU took down one cross in Knightstown — from the town square — and saw dozens of others pop up. If the goal of the people at the ACLU was to keep people from expressing their faith, then they’re failing miserably.
But that’s not what they were trying to do.
They were trying to keep some citizens from using the power of government to force other citizens to support or honor a faith not of their choosing.
Using government power to force someone else to honor your faith isn’t called religious freedom.
It’s called tyranny.
Advocates for the religious right like to point to public opinion surveys that show a majority of Americans support the idea of allowing government to endorse one faith or another.
That’s a nonsensical argument. The First Amendment – like the rest of the Bill of Rights – is one of the things we take off the table and say are not up for majority approval.
We, for example, do not take a vote to make Jacob a Lutheran if he would prefer to be a Baptist. Nor do we use the authority of government to force Jane to go to a church, a synagogue or a mosque if she just wants to stay home.
The First Amendment says those decisions are Jacob’s or Jane’s choice and responsibility.
Their right, in fact.
The holiday season is about faith. We all should honor that faith in whatever fashion each of us feels is best.
We don’t need government’s help to do that.
And, this holiday season, that freedom is something to celebrate.