Even Covid-19 Can't Stop the Christmas Wars

Time again for my dispatches from the Christmas wars, America’s annual tradition of religious litigiousness and cultural sparring.

In this season of Covid-19, let’s begin our tour in Delaware, where Governor John Carney has backed off on restrictions that churches and other religious institutions had challenged in court. The problem wasn’t that the governor was regulating churches but that he was regulating churches in ways that he wasn’t regulating similar institutions. For instance, religious gatherings had age limits but secular gatherings did not, leading the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal to quip, “So gramps could go out to buy a quart of vodka but not to pray.”

Such settlements as these are easily misunderstood, as we can judge from the somewhat histrionic response to the Supreme Court’s much-maligned and much-misunderstood November order prohibiting New York to enforce pandemic regulations singling out religious groups for special restriction. Among other rules, houses of worship located in designated “red zones” were restricted to 10 congregants at a time, but factories, garages and acupuncturists could admit as many people as they liked. The justices didn’t rule that the First Amendment requires treating religions better than other institutions, only that they can’t be treated worse.

It’s silly to refer to all this as “saving” Christmas, the way some people apparently have, because Christmas has never been in danger. What we’re fighting about is particular ways to celebrate the season. In Columbia, Maryland, the annual drive-through Christmas display known as the Symphony of Lights is threatened by a lawsuit claiming that the event interferes with pedestrian access and that automobile exhaust will harm the trees. I care about trees and I’m a great believer in walking, but in this year of Covid, staying in the car might be a good way to keep safe. I’ve turned up no reported decisions in the case, and the Symphony of Lights appears to be continuing unhindered.

In the war for Christmas eyeballs, the Hallmark Channel is, as usual, battering all competition. A few short months ago, observers wondered whether, given virus restrictions on production, Hallmark would be able to produce anything like its usual ambitious slate of upbeat holiday films. The answer is a resounding yes. 

True, the rules under which production had to operate have led to such pandemic-year changes as “fewer crowd scenes” and “fewer people at the Christmas tree lighting.” Nevertheless, the network’s light, happy films are trouncing both such cable stalwarts as “Fear the Walking Dead” and a long list of regular network fare besides. Perhaps in this grim year of 2020, people just want to smile. (And, speaking of smiles, Hallmark’s characters have become intentionally and consciously more diverse.)

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without litigation over what sort of holiday scene a community can display. This year’s big case arises in Indiana, where in April a federal judge found that Jackson County’s annual holiday display on the grounds of the courthouse was weighted too heavily toward the religious rather than the secular aspects of the season. 

Last month, the county asked the judge to stay the earlier order pending appeal. She refused. The judge pointed out, correctly, that she had not ordered “the wholesale removal of the Nativity scene” but instead had required the county “to bring the display, including the crèche or not, into consonance with the Establishment Clause.” As to the county’s claim that those who celebrate the religious Christmas still have rights, the court actually agreed, explaining that its order “also protects the public’s interest in enjoying a community holiday celebration that constitutionally observes both the secular and sacred elements of Christmastime.”

In other words, the relief the county sought was there in the order all along. “The Court’s heart has not grown three sizes,” the judge wrote, borrowing without attribution from Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The issue is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

This battle seems to be fought in one form or another every year. And yet a truce may be in the offing. According to Thomas Brejcha, founder of the Thomas More Society, some 31 state capitols will feature Nativity scenes this season, up from 27 last year. The list includes among others such true-blue strongholds as California, Hawaii, Maryland and Massachusetts.   

Meanwhile, a Christmas feud between neighbors is breaking social media. A user who goes by @justinthelightguy has gained millions of views for his TikTok videos setting his, um, garish holiday lights to popular music. Recently he posted another video, taken by a front door camera, that featured a neighbor’s profanity-laced rant about @justinthelightguy’s videos or the lights themselves or perhaps both. The rant has apparently been taken down, but, as tech site The Daily Dot reports, rather deadpan, “The confrontation has led to widespread debate online.”

Not all of the online debate is, ahem, polite.

Over in St. Anthony, Minnesota, an anonymous letter writer chose a different approach in complaining about a neighbor’s holiday display: “The idea of twinkling, colorful lights are [sic] a reminder of divisions that continue to run through our society, a reminder of systemic biases against our neighbors who don’t celebrate Christmas or who can’t afford to put up lights of their own.”

Right theme, wrong target. Biases and poverty are real. They don’t amount to a case against the bright holiday lights that this year so many homeowners put up earlier than usual, perhaps as an act of visual defiance against the privations of a year so grim we’re being warned to forego traditional family visits. But they do serve as a reminder of the reason for the season: Loving our neighbors is what Christmas ought to be about.

No, no, it’s not a fake, according to Snopes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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