The Bible is no longer widely accepted as the final authority in American culture. As a result, the Christmas season generates a multitude of questions from people who are confused and want to know whether they may wish someone “Merry Christmas,” or whether their town may include religious decorations to celebrate the season.

Why do many Christians, and their communities and schools, fear to openly proclaim the religious significance of Christmas? We believe the reason is the confusion generated by “separationists.”

Separationists are those who believe that openly celebrating the religious meaning of Christmas violates the U.S. Constitution by blurring the line between what they believe should be a separation of the roles of church and state. Their claims are generally based upon the mistaken belief that the doctrine of the separation of church and state is violated if the government acknowledges the birth of Jesus as the historical reason for celebrating December 25.

Nativity scene in the city

Photo courtesy photolibrary

This decades-old photo depicts a scene no longer familiar in the big city. Decorations such as these are not outlawed, just highly controversial in today’s culture.

What Are the Legal Rules in Keeping Christ in Christmas?

In recent years, secular groups advocating the complete separation of church and state have been circulating misinformation about the legalities of public celebrations of Christmas, seeking to confine Christmas to the church or home. As a result, many public officials have been misled into believing that Christ must be removed from Christmas in public venues.

Despite these new assaults on Christmas, the Constitution does not require public officials to entirely obliterate religious themes or displays from public Christmas observances. In fact, no court has ever ruled that the Constitution prohibits Christmas carols, Christmas displays, or Christmas greetings in public streets, parks, schools, or commercial establishments, as long as the religious items are included along with secular symbols of the holiday season.

What Does the Constitution Say?

1. The Constitution continues to guarantee both freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. Private religious speech, such as saying “Merry Christmas,” even in public schools or workplaces, is protected speech.

2. Including a religious component along with secular symbols in public holiday displays and concerts does not violate the supposed “separation of church and state,” a doctrine often cited by separationists as part of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that the Establishment Clause requires neutrality, not censorship. With respect to private holiday displays, nativity scenes may not be banned while other seasonal decorations are permitted.

Public decorations often depict only nonreligious symbols of a winter holiday, such as snowmen and reindeer. Schools and public areas are eliminating any religious music, and many businesses have banned the greeting “Merry Christmas.” None of these measures are legally required by the Establishment Clause, despite what secular legal organizations hostile to the public recognition of Christianity would have us believe.

Now is not the time to lay down our spiritual arms and surrender to the very small percentage of Americans who are hostile toward Christianity and who want to eliminate all things religious, including Christmas, from our national life. Let us not only, with confidence, keep Christ in Christmas, but use this season as an opportunity to proclaim Him as the Creator and Savior.

You have more rights than you think

There are many opportunities to express the religious significance of Christmas.

  1. Your children may sing Christmas carols during school concerts, as long as other secular songs are included in the selections. And your community or workplace is not required to ban religious content from their holiday celebrations.
  2. Children may give religious gifts to their teachers or to other students, just as government and other employees may give religious greetings to coworkers.
  3. A public school or local community may include religious items in a holiday or winter display, as long as they are part of a combined secular/religious display.
  4. A public school student may write about his Christmas observations or discuss them in a class presentation, and a teacher is permitted to provide an objective explanation of the religious origins of Christmas as part of a curriculum about the cultural and religious aspects of national holidays. Government officials may also recognize the religious aspects of this celebration.

Dr. David C. Gibbs, Jr. is founder of the Christian Law Association, a U.S. legal ministry that defends the rights of churches and Christians. Dr. Gibbs, Jr., has defended Christian liberty in America in 15 different State Supreme Court cases, and he is heard daily on the radio program The Legal Alert.

Dr. David C. Gibbs III is an attorney with the Christian Law Association and with Gibbs Law Firm. Dr. Gibbs III is heard nationwide on the radio program The Legal Alert and has appeared on numerous news and talk shows, including Larry King Live and Face the Nation.

Abridged from the article “Christ, Christmas, and the Constitution” by Dr. David C. Gibbs, Jr., and Dr. David C. Gibbs III. Used by permission from the Christian Law Association (CLA), a legal missionary ministry at www.christianlaw.org.

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