From intelligent design to nativity scenes, I am always struck by the way that the so-called “Religious Right” is happy to dilute religious teachings, apparently in order to further their right-wing agenda. Groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy attack the humanitarian mission of mainline Protestant Churches in order to bring them more in line with right-wing politics. In order to defend the sinking ship of intelligent design, intelligent design advocates are willing to create a caricature of God the Tinkerer, who modifies malaria and HIV so that children die in their mothers’ arms (Behe, in The Edge of Evolution). So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me when a grop in Berkley, Michigan, would rather see secular symbols added to their town’s nativity scene so that it can be returned to city property, instead of having the purely religious display remain in its new location, on the grounds of the city’s United Methodist Church.
As Ed Brayton reports, at the request of a town resident, the ACLU advised that city that, in order to remain on the city hall grounds, the nativity scene would need to have its religious message diluted with secular symbols of the season.
[After being contacted by a local resident, the ACLU] investigated the situation and warned the city that their display did not meet the standards required for a legal display by the Supreme Court in Allegheny. In that ruling, the Court said that any message of religious endorsement must be diminished by having non-religious symbols mixed in with the religious ones – candy canes, reindeer and Santa Clause, for instance, mixed in with the manger, the wise men and the baby Jesus.
The city council, after consulting with the Berkley Clergy Association decided that they would rather sell the display to the the BCA, and have it displayed on the grounds of a church, “next to the post office, still a very well traveled spot in the city but, because it was not public property, outside of the reach of the Allegheny requirements”.
However, a local group has gotten a ballot initiative which would require the nativity display be returned to city property.
The amendment that Berkley YES placed on the ballot specifically requires that the display be modeled after a display upheld in another Michigan town in a 6th circuit case called Doe v Clawson. The group’s website says that any display would have “among other items, a nativity scene, gift packages, colored lights, a “Seasons Greetings” sign, and a Santa Claus figure.” The irony of the situation is that, while the group has made such a point of saying that they want to make sure the ACLU doesn’t win, this is exactly what the ACLU warned the city in late 2005 that they had to do to remain legal. ACLU spokesperson Rana Elmir told me that as long as the display meets the standards found in Allegheny and Clawson, they have no problem with it.
It never ceases to amaze me that these so-called “Religious Right” groups appear happy to undercut religion in the interest of political power.