Nativity Scene Controversy

December 11, 2011

Political Theory


Recently, a nativity scene in front of a court house in Athens, Texas has been brought into the spotlight.  There is a controversial debate of whether the scene should be allowed to be displayed here.  An anti-religion group from Wisconsin known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation is the group fighting the court house.  They have notified the city and say they are in violation of federal law with the religious scene and want the court house to remove it.  They argue it shows favoritism; not favoritism toward a specific religion, but toward religion in general.

The nativity scene

However, according to the county attorney, it is legal because they have various decorations on the property.  I’m not sure though what constitutes as “other decorations” on the property to make the scene unbiased. The county judge listed off decorations that are typically associated with Christmas.  If the scene is not removed, the anti-religion group wants a sign be put up on the property reading,”There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

We can look at this from philosopher John Stuart Mill’s perspective and see what he might think.  Mill was an avid supporter of the freedom of speech and also expression.  He argued as long as no one is being harmed, then actions can be justified.  It’s hard to tell if anyone is actually being harmed (perhaps emotionally).  This is however a case where religion and state seem to coincide.  Obviously, it would be different if the scene was on a person’s private property, but it’s a court house.  It appears that Mill would argue in favor the scene due to a freedom of expression.  However, Mill was an atheist, so that makes the situation a little tougher.  He might argue that the nativity scene is okay, but the anti-religion group should be allowed to put whatever they want on the property, as long as no one is harmed.

The community is in favor of the scene too, but those that were interviewed all held very strong Christian beliefs.  This situation is different because a group from across the U.S. is arguing for the removal.  In other words, it doesn’t seem that people in the community are negatively affected by the scene regularly because of the heavily Christian population.

What do you guys think?  Do you think the court house has the right to keep the nativity scene displayed? Do you think the Freedom  From Religion Foundation has a valid argument? And what position do you think John Stuart Mill would take?  Would his non-religious belief affect his opinion?

The proposed sign

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7 Comments on “Nativity Scene Controversy”

  1. keroboim Says:

    I think the Freedom from Religious Foundations has taken this one too far. As mentioned in the post, the nativity scene has no harm to anyone that sees it in passing. The scene does not include any words to educate individuals about a religion. This was simply a courthouse that is participating in the festivities associated with Christmas, which is a world-wide holiday. Most likely, the scene does not evoke religious feelings/thoughts from non-believers. Additionally, the non-believers most likely celebrate Christmas and have not come forward with complaints about the scene. And by suggesting to put up that sign next to the scene, the anti-religion group is attempting to influence society with its views. I do not think the group has a valid argument and the courthouse should not take the scene down.

    Mill would support this on the basis of freedom of speech/expression. Even though he was an athiest, it would not be logical for him to argue for freedom of expression and then be against it when it pertains to religion.

  2. jsimon99 Says:

    I believe our society today is getting too far out of hand with situations like these. The nativity scene is part of a religion with what a certain group of people believe in. Others should respect that especially when there are no words or actions taking place to harm another group. If the anti-religious group decided to have their own demonstration somewhere, I as a person who celebrates Christmas, would respect their signs but I would just have an opposite opinion towards it. I wouldn’t go to court and try to get it taken down with certain laws that might allow so. Mill would be an avid supporter of the nativity scene because he believed in freedom of speech and expression. The expression of the nativity scene displays what a group believes in and the anti-religious group should respect that. Most people who are non-believers in a religion would not be phased by this nativity scene. Christmas is talked about all around whether you hear it on television, the radio, or see Christmas articles in the newspaper. You don’t see an outcry in people protesting for the word Christmas to not be said on the tv, the radio or in the newspaper. No person has the same views and they should realize that not everyone will conform to what the non-religious group wants.

  3. rpsafian Says:

    First off, I think that this is an excellent post that brings up a very intriguing question that has actually had to be dealt with before. Before I start however, let me say that I am writing this post from an entirely non-religious perspective. It doesn’t matter whether I am a Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist, this class is POLITICAL science so I’d like to address this issue from a completely political and non-partisan standpoint.

    I have to disagree with both comments made by keroboim and jsimon99 and believe that the nativity scene outside the courthouse should be removed. I am not at all hostile towards the situation and have no plans on taking any action against this or any other debatable religious scene, but this is a clear example of a violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from promoting any religious messages. I think we can all agree that this nativity scene is promoting a religious message, and in front of a court of law that is supposed to uphold the Constitution of the United States? I believe this is point blank crossing the line. I have never travelled to Athens, Texas, but from my own knowledge of the people of Texas, I am certain there are PLENTY of churches that would be willing to adopt this scene in their own yard as opposed to a court house. And to argue that the scene is showing favoritism to all religion in general, not just Christianity, is clearly flawed. Do you see any depictions or even reference to a Star of David or Moses, a Buddha or monk, or Allah or a Star and Crescent? Absolutely not. And why can’t the Freedom From Religious Foundation Group post their sign too? Aren’t they advocating a belief system as well? Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time a religious scene has come under pressure from the media and religious/non-religious groups, as very similar situations have happened before in Florida and even again in Texas.

    In terms of Mill’s argument that the actions of the courthouse are justified because no one is being harmed, be realistic and think about the way our country is run. Police officers taze and pepper spray suspects, courts order punishment by the death penalty, and President’s wage war with countries for economic, political, and American gains. All of these are “justified” by the government, and they can be extremely harmful and even fatal, right?

    Once again, I could personally care less about a bunch of plastic statues outside a building in Texas. From a political standpoint however, the courthouse should not have the right to display the scene because it is in violation of the First Amendment, and Mill’s argument has no validity in this case, both because he is non-religious and because the US Government clearly does not accept his beliefs as legitimate.

  4. adamskt Says:

    I appreciate the political viewpoint from which rpsafian looks at this argument, as opposed to bringing personal views on religion into the discussion. However, I am not convinced that we can ignore Mill’s opinion, simply because the government has appeared to in the past. From Mill’s perspective, I think this display of religion, in the most general sense, would be acceptable because it is not harming anyone in any way. However, I think that the placement of the scene, as stated above, does have some importance here. If the scene were on any type of private property, Mill’s view is easy to determine. But the fact that it is on government property makes it more difficult to determine. If I understand Mill correctly, the works we read mainly dealt with freedom of personal expression. I do not know if his ideas can be applied when confounding variables of private vs. public are introduced. With the separation of church and state being such a prominent part of United States policies today, I do not think that Mill would consider this scene to be justified. I think that Mill would support amendments to the Constitution, over freedom of expression, if the two were to come into conflict as they do here. Therefore, I think that Mill would not support the placement of the Nativity scene on the property of a courthouse.

  5. djavolio8 Says:

    My initial response to this post was why in the world does anyone care what some irrelevant group in Wisconsin has to say about an irrelevant decoration in Texas. It is rights groups such as this one that give a bad name to other groups that are actually promoting a fair cause. I’m not a member nor do I frankly support any group of advocates in our nation, but if such a group wants to be taken seriously, they cannot make a big deal out of small issues that frankly have no effect on anyone’s lives.
    Also, the idea that by displaying a nativity scene the courthouse is somehow showing favor to christians is ridiculous. I have yet to be in a courtroom where the judge told a plaintiff, defendant, or witness to state their religion. One’s beliefs have no place in the courtroom thus courts have not bothered to incorporate them.

    I believe Mill would have supported the claims made by the anti-religious group. By showing both the nativity scene and the atheist banner, he would argue that all parties are being equally represented and that therefore no harm is being done. However, I’m not sure how he would be able to make this claim without saying that some symbol relative to every religion, or lack thereof, would need to be displayed in order to ensure no harm is done.

  6. rschles92 Says:

    To be honest, I’m pretty surprised by the responses to this post. I really don’t understand any justification for having a nativity scene outside a court house. Church and State are separate. Period.
    What if this was an elementary school? Would the response be the same? Do we make that call?

    The answer is we don’t. We separate Church and State to avoid situations like these. And to show some sort of bias at a court no less is unacceptable. It’s a town that is mostly Christian so it seems okay. But what if in some “My Cousin Vinny” situation some atheist from out of town gets prosecuted in Athens? Doesn’t look so good.

    Do we plan for ridiculous circumstances like this? Of course not. But separation of Church and State avoids petty situations like this. Why mock the principle of separation to preserve a nativity scene?

    In Athens, this may not be a problem. The problem is it sets a precedent for other predominantly religious areas to pull a stunt like this.

  7. Brandon Baxter Says:

    What would a message like this send to a new immigrant to the United States? Someone who has been raised to believe the land of the free. We boast so often on how in the United States you can practice whatever religion you want. But placing a uniquely Christian symbol in front of a building that represents the law of the land suggests otherwise.

    By placing Jesus Christ in front of a court house you are sending a message to new immigrants that our law is controlled by Christian values. And if you look at the policies and words of many neo-conservatives in our government today this is exactly what they want to do. They want the United States to be ruled under Christian law. Literally, the only explanation for not allowing gay marriage and equal rights is because it is considered a sin by fundamentalists. Some may argue that having a law controlled or influenced by Christians values is not bad, but then I ask you, how come the same people who uphold that argument have a problem with governments controlled or influenced by Islamic law?

    Place a nativity scene in front of a private business or a private home, but not in front of a government building. And just so you know, no one is fighting a war against Christmas for suggesting this, there is no war against Christmas.

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