Last holiday season, Bill O’Reilly was fuming a little bit more than usual.
The bombastic Fox News host declared that Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire had "insulted Christians all over the world” when she "allowed” a Winter Solstice display to stand next to a Christmas tree and a Nativity scene in the state’s capitol building.
But what O’Reilly failed to acknowledge in his op-ed for The Washington Times was that Gregoire was just doing her job. She was enforcing a court order that stemmed from a case between the state and O’Reilly’s friends at the Alliance Defense Fund.
The ADF, a Religious Right group, had represented a local man who wanted to erect a Nativity scene in the state capitol rotunda, forcing the state in 2007 to broaden its policy on displays.
That meant that when the next holiday season rolled around, the capitol rotunda had to be open to an atheist sign that stated, "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. 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.”
Even if he was aware of those facts, O’Reilly’s rant came as little surprise.
Every year during the holiday season, right-wing pundits and Religious Right groups rally their followers by claiming there is a "war on Christmas.” These groups are outraged annually by holiday displays, parades, music and anything else that has to do with the December holiday – unless a large dollop of Christianity is included.
Last year, it got so bad in Olympia that protestors began gathering outside the Capitol demanding that the Solstice sign come down. The demonstrators attacked Gregoire, carrying signs that portrayed her as the Grinch.
The Rev. Ken Hutcherson, a Religious Right leader in the community, announced at the protest that the governor had "led the state of Washington to be the armpit of America. And I’m afraid that our governor is the one adding the offensive odor to the armpit.”
After last year’s debacle over religious symbols in the capitol rotunda, state officials have issued new permanent rules barring all nongovernment displays inside the Capitol campus building.
The Washington Department of General Administration signed off on the policy after listening to testimony at hearings in September. Dennis Mansker, Americans United’s South Sound Chapter president, supported the proposed changes and provided suggestions for how the state should handle temporary displays on Capitol grounds.
"We do not need a repeat of last year’s holiday display embarrassment,” he said. "Though we support free speech, we all learned the potential hazards of an open public forum. Our Capitol building should be used to carry out the people’s business, which includes allowing people to petition their lawmakers. But space is limited, thus a prohibition on unattended displays makes perfect sense.”
Despite the ban on displays inside the Capitol rotunda, the new policy still allows religious displays outside the Capitol campus buildings, which could move last year’s dispute to the outdoors, Mansker said.
"As far as the new rule goes, I think it hasn’t really solved anything,” he said. "Now there will be Nativity scenes outside the Capitol building, which I think makes the problem worse. Outdoor displays are by their nature more visible and therefore much more likely to give the impression that the state is supporting religion.”
Situations like this are not isolated. As early as October this year, a Michigan resident claimed religious persecution because the government would not permit him to erect a stand-alone Nativity scene on public land.
John Satawa claims he has placed the crèche on the median of a public road in Warren, Mich., for decades. Last year, Warren’s road commission rejected the Nativity scene because Satawa had not requested a permit. This year, when he asked ahead of time, he was officially turned down because the tableau "clearly displays a religious message” and would violate the First Amendment.
Satawa, represented by the Religious Right’s Thomas More Law Center, filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision.
"Every Christmas holiday,” said Richard Thompson, Center president and chief counsel, "militant atheists, acting like the Taliban, use the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ – nowhere found in our Constitution – as a means of intimidating municipalities and schools into removing expressions celebrating Christmas, a national holiday.
"Their goal is to cleanse our public square of all Christian symbols,” he continued. "However, the grand purpose of our Founding Fathers and the First Amendment was to protect religion, not eliminate it.”