Nativity Scenes & Holiday Displays
Remember that First Amendment rights only apply to interactions with government actors, so this information applies in public, but not private, institutions.
Under current law, government entities (city halls, courts, public schools, etc) can generally acknowledge religious holidays so long as they do not create an impression of endorsement of religion by the government.
For instance, local towns can display a nativity scene so long as they include a fair amount of non-religious, or secular, symbols such as reindeer, candy canes, toy soldiers and so on, along with the nativity scene.
If the display does not include such non-religious symbols, it may be seen as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.
Just because a nativity scene or other religious display appears on government property does not necessarily mean that it is owned or is being displayed by the government, using tax dollars. Many local and some state governments have within their boundaries public areas whereby citizens are permitted to erect displays, including those of a religious nature, of their own choice. If you observe a religious display on government property, you may want to consider the following steps to investigate the situation:
Get the facts. Contact the government officials or offices responsible for the oversight of the public property where the displays are present. Ask who owns the display, who erected it and whether any tax money was used for the purchase and/or erection of the display. If government officials are hesitant to provide you with such information, consider filing a public records request to get the information that you want.
Offer a reminder. Pickup the phone or write a letter to remind your local elected officials that the Constitution forbids such government endorsement of religion and religious practices. Tell them that such displays send a message to those with different faiths and belief systems that they are not welcome. Also remind them that the Constitution protects the rights of the few, or even one, against the tyranny of the majority.
Get your message out. Write letters-to-the-editor or editorials for placement in your local paper. Attend city council or town meetings. Form a coalition of like-minded people. You may be surprised at how many people feel the same way that you do but are reluctant to speak out.
Suggest an alternative location. Most areas have a wealth of places of worship where such displays are permitted. The moving of such displays from public to private property will effectively end any constitutional concerns.
Contact the ACLU of Ohio. Email us at [email protected] and send a detailed message regarding the contents and location of the display as well as a phone number where you can be reached. Photographs of the display are especially helpful. While the ACLU is not able to intervene on behalf of all individuals who contact us, we will provide assistance when possible.
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This fact sheet is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for personal legal advice.