By Colin Hanna
The “Christmas Wars” are once again raging on the lawn in front of the Chester County (PA) Courthouse. For the past five years, my Pennsylvania Pastors Network has sponsored a crèche display on the courthouse lawn, just a few steps away from a local Jewish group’s Menorah display. Also in the mix has been a large Christmas tree sposnored by the local Chamber of Commerce. A Christmas tree is not a symbol of the sacred Christian holiday of Christ’s birth, of course; it’s a symbol of the commercial and essentially secular national holiday of Christmas. The crèche, menorah and tree all co-existed peacefully. None of the three exhibited any hostility to any of the others. Each one — Christian, Jewish and commercial — has a well-established connection to the season.
The crèche in front of the Chesty County Courthouse/ Photo by Colin Hanna
Then along came the anti-theistic, and misnamed, Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. They demanded equal treatment, and applied to the commissioners for permission to install their own “holiday” display in the form of a Tree of Knowledge adorned with several provocative laminated book covers bearing such titles as “Atheism – the Case Against God,” “The God Delusion,” and “The Pillars of Religion: Ignorance, Indoctrination and Inadequacy.” The commissioners granted them permission to install their display, initially unaware that it would contain such hostile messages, and without commenting on the lack of any well-established connection to the season. The claim that the winter solstice provides that basis is flimsy indeed, but even if conceded, one cannot link a Tree of Knowledge as the symbol for that obscure day. The Tree of Knowledge literally and figuratively overshadowed the creche and menorah.
Local reaction was swift and negative. Much of it was a sincere but largely sentimental expression of tradition rather than an informed argument on the constitutional protections of religious speech or the federal courts’ jurisprudence on Constitutionally permissible displays that include both religious and non-religious symbols. Nonetheless, the perception was nearly unanimous that the Freethought Society’s tree with its hostile messages simply did not belong with the crèche, menorah and tree. They peppered the commissioners with emails, blog postings, calls and letters.
This year, the commissioners decided that if they were ultimately the responsible party for deciding what kinds of displays properly reflect the holiday season, the protection of religious speech and court decisions on permissible content of holiday displays, then they would put up their own display and end the process of permitting outside groups to do so.
The Pennsylvania Pastors Network has accepted the commissioners’ new policy on displays. This year’s consists of a large Santa and sleigh, a sizeable train, a large “Peace on Earth” banner, and a remembrance for veterans who lost their lives in service to the nation, in addition to the tree, menorah and crèche. Still, the legal threats of the Freethought Society stand ready to play the role of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The charming and quaint town of West Chester, Pennsylvania and its historic courthouse do not look like a battlefield in a national struggle, but that is what they have become.
Colin Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring and its affiliate, the Pennsylvania Pastors Network. He is also a former Chester County Commissioner.