Forest Service forbids 'religious themes' on 5,000 decorations recognizing holiday
Posted: October 01, 2009
1:00 am Eastern
By Bob Unruh
The U.S. Forest Service has banned the name of Jesus from decorations being assembled by children in Arizona for a blue spruce from the state that will become the Capitol Christmas Tree this year, and a legal firm is challenging the censorship.
"Banning Christmas from the Capitol Christmas tree is just absurd. Christian students shouldn't be discriminated against for expressing their religious beliefs," said Jonathan Scruggs, litigation staff counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.
"The First Amendment does not allow government officials to exclude schoolchildren's ornaments for the capitol's Christmas tree merely because they communicate a religious viewpoint," he said yesterday.
The organization has sent a letter to state and federal officials, including Arizona Gov. Janice Brewer, who are supervising the program, calling on them to stop enforcement of the prohibition.
ADF set a deadline for response of Oct. 4, the day before all the ornaments must be turned in.
The legal organization said one criterion states: "Ornaments cannot reflect a religious or political theme. Instead, share your interpretation of our theme 'Arizona's gift, from the Grand Canyon State."
But a mother whose child wanted to submit ornaments with holiday themes such as "Happy Birthday, Jesus," "Merry Christmas" and a manger scene raised her concern with ADF.
"[The child] desires to convey a message about Arizona from his religious perspective via Christmas ornaments. It is well established that expression of religious beliefs is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," the ADF letter said. "Religious expression is speech and is entitled to the same level of protection as other kinds of speech.
"The Supreme Court has consistently condemned viewpoint discrimination regardless where it occurs," the letter continued. "Viewpoint discrimination is an 'egregious' form of discrimination that occurs '[w]hen the government targets not subject matter, but particular views taken by speakers on a subject.'
"When the government excludes speech from a forum on an otherwise includible subject because of its perspective, it engages in viewpoint discrimination," the letter said. "Here, there is little question that government officials have opened up a forum for speech on a particular topic – the topic of Arizona – yet have singled out and forbidden religious viewpoints about this topic. … thus, while children may submit ornaments about Arizona from all different viewpoints – whether from different historical or cultural or geographical or economic
perspectives – these children may not submit an ornament about Arizona from a religious perspective."
The ADF demands that the restriction be rescinded or the family "will be forced to take legal action to protect her child's First Amendment rights."
Those in charge of the program, including Capitol Christmas Tree Coordinator Richard Davalos in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, did not return WND messages asking for comment.
A public information officer for the forests promised to research the issue.
The ADF said the tree itself is an 85-foot blue spruce that will be chopped down and hauled to Washington. Four thousand of the ornaments will be on the tree itself, and 1,000 will be displayed at other locations.
The Forest Service ornament program specifies ornaments need to be 9-12 inches tall, able to withstand winter weather for three weeks, include a loop of wire for hanging, and be able to be seen 75 feet away.
Also, "Ornament designs may not reflect religious or political themes."