Jesus Christ depictions alongside secular symbols on public buildings are constitutional
Virginia may have nativity scenes on government property during the Christmas holiday–provided secular symbols are displayed alongside them, a Virginia state attorney general said recently.
In his legal opinion, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said on holidays outright Christian symbols like depictions of the baby Jesus are permitted on public property if they are balanced with symbols of other faiths and secular symbols like Santa Clause and candy canes, the UPI said.
Cuccinelli’s opinion was written in response to an inquiry from Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) who wanted to know if the U.S. and Virginia constitutions and state law would allow these to be displayed in Loudoun County, The Washington Post said.
Cuccinelli, analyzing the Federal Establishment Clause jurisprudence said two conclusions are clear, “(1) governmental accommodation of religion is constitutionally permitted, and in some circumstances is required; and (2) holiday displays erected by governments can be validly exhibited depending on content,” he wrote in his response.
Regarding separation of church and state, he cited a Court opinion in Lynch V. Donnelly which explained that the “metaphor itself is not a wholly accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists between church and state. 15 That is so because “[i]t has never been thought either possible or desirable to enforce a regime of total separation ….,,16 Not only does the Constitution not “require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any,” Cuccinelli’s response noted.
Cuccinelli said local governments are not required to ban holiday displays that incorporate religious symbols, “because governments enjoy considerable discretion in accommodating the religious expression of their citizens and employees and in their own recognition of traditional seasonal holidays,’ The Washington Post said.
He added in his response that depictions of Jesus Christ would be appropriate and are constitutional if surrounded by secular symbols like lights, poinsettias, wreaths, snowflakes, fir trees, and green and red ribbons.
Kent Willis of the ACLU in Virginia expressed agreement with Cuccinelli’s opinion noting that it would be fair either to ban all displays, or to allow all of them equally, The Washington Post said.
According to Marshall, the inquiry was relayed to Cuccinelli because Loudoun residents aired complaints last year when the 100-year-old Leesburg courthouse did not have any holiday display on the lawn because County officials had banned them, The Washington Post said.
Cuccinelli noted in his response that the Constitution has long accommodated religion, and its history of such goes as far back as the time of the Quakers. He cited Article II and I cl.8, and Article VI, cl. 3 which allowed affirmation in place of swearing to men of denominations that do not allow taking of oaths (including the Quakers).
Cuccinelli’s response also noted that the United States House of Representatives had for a very long time held nondenominational Sunday church services which were regularly attended by President Thomas Jefferson and President James Madison, who sponsored the First Amendment when he was in Congress.