For several decades the City of Ozark (Christian County) has decorated their city park on the banks of the scenic Finley River. Thousands of families drive through the large park and enjoy hundreds of lights and Christmas scenes – and alas, even a nativity scene and a large lighted cross.
Enter the Freedom from Religion Foundation sending threatening letters from Madison, Wisconsin, telling us how to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They threaten a lawsuit to teach us a lesson – an attempt to neuter Christmas.
They threaten Ozark (located halfway between Springfield and Branson) while all the time our City Hall, County Courthouse, and all sheriff’s patrol cars bear our national motto “In God We Trust.”
The “Plastic Reindeer Rule” originated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984). The Reindeer Rule humorously applies to the establishment clause principle from controversies over the public display of holiday decorations. As the name suggests, sufficient secular elements, such as the display of reindeer, Santa, and a snowman can counterbalance the religious components in a public display.
Our courts inquire, “Is the government celebrating the holiday or promoting religion?” “The Plastic Reindeer Rule”, requires a sufficient number of secular objects render the overall display a legal observance a constitutional way to celebrate Christmas. (God surely must have a sense of humor).
There is no total separation of church and state — and never will be. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the so-called “wall of separation” is a useful metaphor but is not totally accurate. Our Constitution mandates “accommodation . . . and forbids hostility towards any… [religion].” Our history is pervaded by official acknowledgment of the role of religion on American life and there are dozens of examples of “accommodation” between church and state.
The Ozark nativity scene rightfully belongs in the Ozark park – and should stay.
But, after Christmas, it must be removed, together with the cross, until next year, as our government may not prefer one religion over another.
In the meantime, remember Isaiah 9:6-7: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace There shall be no end…”
Dee Wampler is a Springfield attorney.