This is a Christmas story — but not the kind of Christmas story you're likely to read to children. It shows the pettiness of adults at their worst, and at a time of year when we would rather try to think the best of people. The setting is the lawn in front of the Chester County (PA) Courthouse, not far from where I sat for eight years as one of Chester County's three Commissioners, ending in 2003. For the past five years, my Pennsylvania Pastors Network has sponsored a crèche display on the Courthouse lawn, just a few steps away from a local Jewish group's Menorah display. Also in the mix is a large Christmas tree sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce.
A Christmas tree is not a symbol of the sacred Christian holiday of Christ's birth, of course; it's a symbol of the commercial and essentially secular national holiday of Christmas. The crèche, menorah and tree co-existed peacefully in their first year together. None of the three exhibited any hostility to any of the others. And, of course, each one -- Christian, Jewish and commercial -- has a well-established connection to the season.
Then along came the anti-theistic, and misnamed, Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. They demanded equal treatment, and applied to the then-current Commissioners for permission to install their own "holiday" display in the form of a Tree of Knowledge adorned with several provocative laminated book covers bearing such titles as "Atheism - the Case Against God," "The God Delusion," and "The Pillars of Religion: Ignorance, Indoctrination and Inadequacy." The Commissioners granted them permission to install their display, initially unaware that it would contain such hostile messages, and without commenting on the lack of any well-established connection between atheism, or non-theism, to the season. The claim that the winter solstice provides such a basis is flimsy indeed, but even if conceded, one cannot logically conclude that a Tree of Knowledge is the appropriate symbol for that obscure day.
Local reaction was swift and negative. Much of it was a sincere, but largely sentimental, expression of tradition rather than an informed argument on the Constitutional protections of religious speech or the federal courts' jurisprudence on constitutionally permissible displays that include both religious and non-religious symbols. The perception was simply that the Freethought Society's tree with its hostile messages simply did not belong with the crèche, menorah and Christmas tree. They peppered the Commissioners with protesting emails, blog postings, calls and letters.
This year, the Commissioners decided that if they were ultimately the responsible party for deciding what kinds of displays properly reflect the holiday season, the protection of religious speech and court decisions on permissible content of holiday displays, then they would put up their own display and end the process of permitting outside groups to do so.
The Pennsylvania Pastors Network accepted the Commissioners' new policy, and I believe that Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County, the group that had sponsored the menorah, did so as well, while the Freethought Society threatened litigation. The Commissioners have said that the entire display, still incomplete, will be finalized by the end of this week, and even the local ACLU has said that no legal action would be appropriate until it is complete.
Still, the legal threats of the Freethought Society stand ready to play the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The charming and quaint town of West Chester, Pennsylvania and its historic courthouse do not look like a battlefield in a national struggle, but that is what they have become. It's a sad commentary on misguided political correctness stirring up antagonism at the very time that people ought to be saying, Peace on Earth, and Good Will to all mankind.