Every year at this time, we are usually treated to news of the latest secular challenge to Nativity scenes on government property. Depictions of baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the courthouse lawn are prohibited by the First Amendment, we are told, because government may not “establish” religion by promoting Christianity on government property.
Enter “Snaketivity,” this year’s contribution in the latest attempt to stir up a “separation of church and state” fuss in Illinois, which will be displayed alongside Nativity scenes and other traditional Christmas displays in the Capitol rotunda in Springfield. The four-and-a-half foot sculpture depicts the forearm of a woman holding an apple, with a snake curled around it, obviously referring to the story in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis concerning Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It mocks the Christmas story of God’s greatest gift to humanity – His son – with a sign which reads “Knowledge is The Greatest Gift.” The group behind the sculpture is an organization called the Satanic Temple, whose name may raise eyebrows, but in practice it’s just another tiresome secular group that aims to cleanse the public square of all religious references.
Does the First Amendment require that such a display be exhibited in the same public space as a Nativity scene and a menorah?
The short answer is that the Constitution’s First Amendment, as currently interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, means that, unfortunately, the obnoxious sculpture must be allowed in the same space as other seasonal displays. Why? Perhaps an easy way to understand it is to compare the Rotunda to a public park, a place that is considered by the courts to be a “public forum” for free speech. The government that owns the public park can’t pick and choose what topics people in the park can talk about. The Rotunda of the Illinois Statehouse is kind of the same thing, at least at Christmas when the state allows its citizens to contribute seasonal messages and displays there. So long as the state is opening it up for displays created by the public, then all points of view must be allowed.
The aim of mockers like the Satanic Temple is to stir up enough public anger that governments will conclude that the only way to avoid controversy is to terminate all future celebrations of the Christmas and Hannukah seasons. The State of Illinois, anticipating the public’s ire at seeing such displays, has posted a message explaining that the Constitution requires it to permit displays such as “Snaketivity.”
How should Christians respond?
If we are wise, perhaps we should just take a breath, laugh at the absurdity of “Snaketivity,” and realize that our Lord isn’t threatened by it (See 1 Corinthians 3:19). The promoters of such displays are hoping that local governments will shut down all Christmas displays in response, so let’s not be manipulated into giving them what they want. And as citizens, we know that the First Amendment is designed to protect unpopular views, so from the time of the founding of our country we have been taught to develop a thick skin and allow the free exchange of ideas. The truth will ultimately emerge, and it will set us free (John 8:32).
Here’s a suggestion: Invite your favorite non-believer to go see “Snaketivity” or whatever crazy anti-Christmas display may come to your town square, and while you’re there, take them by the Nativity scene and explain who the baby in the manger is and what He means to you.