By now, many people in the Delaware Valley have probably heard about the “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner controversy in Pitman, Gloucester County, NJ. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent Pitman a letter, saying that the banner is a threat to church-state separation. There has been heated controversy over the issue, and some consider the matter to be part of the “War on Christmas.”
While many people appreciate the sentiment, others are expressing strong objection to the boro’s participation in posting this message of faith over Broadway. We feel that a banner with this message is a great idea for posting on a lawn sign or on a house of worship. Unfortunately, it may be inappropriate for a town to endorse such a religious statement by not only agreeing with putting up the banner, but by using public resources (the fire department) to hang the religiously-themed sign over the main thorofare in town.
When a government agency, such as a town, endorses a religious sentiment or statement of faith, this breaks down the wall of separation between religion and government. In order for us to have freedom of religious conscience, our government must be neutral on religion, and can not favor or discriminate against any faith.
The Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (DVAU) reported the Pitman N.J. banner controversy to AU’s legal department in Washington D.C. The Associate Legal Director told DVAU, “I think FFRF is right. If the Knights’ banner is government-endorsed speech, then the city is unconstitutionally endorsing Christianity. The fact that the fire department helped put up the banner supports a conclusion that the city endorses it. If the Knights’ banner is private speech, then the City must allow FFRF to put up its own banner to avoid viewpoint discrimination that violates FFRF’s rights.”
We respect the Knights of Columbus, and we value their work in the community. But we share the concern of the FFRF, that this banner may represent a church-state separation violation. Perhaps if the Boro of Pitman would open the Broadway banner opportunities to include holiday greetings from other religious and community groups, the threat could be minimized. DVAU has heard from Humanists, Wiccans, and others who want equal time. We hope that next holiday season, the Boro of Pitman will grant other religious and community groups the same space that they currently provide to the Knights of Columbus, or, return the banner to the Knights for placement on private property.
Whether or not you “Keep Christ in Christmas,” DVAU wants you to enjoy a safe, happy holiday season, and we want to protect your right to religious freedom, by urging the government not to promote one religious belief over all others.
Dr. Ed Joyce has been a chapter leader with Americans United for Separation of Church and State since 2008, and was elected as the President of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United (DVAU) in 2010. Through DVAU, he is working to insure first amendment constitutional rights. He speaks to groups in the Delaware Valley on the importance of maintaining a healthy separation between religion and government.
The Delaware Valley chapter, made up of hundreds of active members in the greater Philadelphia area (a 60-mile radius around Center City that includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) conducts seminars, cultural events and training throughout the year.
Visit DVAU on the web at http://dvau.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Read these news stories to learn more about the Pitman NJ “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner controversy.
Star-Ledger, December 14, 2011: In Pitman, controversial Christmas banner polarizes Gloucester County borough
Gloucester County Times, December 14, 2011: Pitman attorney says controversial N.J. ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ banner is a zoning issue
Gloucester County Times, December 23, 2011: Pitman’s ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ banner will remain hanging for the holiday, local churches plan to carol beneath it