Who hates Christmas? Not us!

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

Get the facts about the ACLU of Texas and Christmas, so that you can avoid bearing false witness and (should you so desire) be empowered to set the record straight. Merry Christmas from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas!

Video: The fictitious “War on Christmas”

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Recent ACLU cases defending the Constitutional rights of Christians

The ACLU of Texas filed an amicus brief in support of students in the Plano school district who wanted to include pencils with religious messages (like ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’) in holiday gift bags.

The ACLU of Texas and the National ACLU filed a brief in support of a Texas state prisoner seeking damages after prison officials denied him the opportunity to participate in Christian worship services.

The ACLU of Texas filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a Christian pastor and his faith-based rehabilitation facility in Sinton, Texas. The ACLU urged the court to reverse a decision that had prohibited the pastor from operating his rehabilitation program near his church and also had sharply limited the reach of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In June 2009, the Texas Supreme Court agreed and ruled in favor of the pastor.

The ACLU and the ACLU of Texas filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Texas Supreme Court in support of mothers who had been separated from their children by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). The DFPS seized more than 450 children from their homes in Eldorado, Texas, following vague allegations about child abuse by some members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While fully supporting the state’s commitment to protecting children from abuse, the ACLU argued that Texas law and the U.S. Constitution required that the children be returned unless the state could provide the requisite evidence of abuse. In May 2008, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled, consistent with the ACLU position, that the state must return the children to their homes pending further investigation of allegations of abuse.

If you would like to find out more about the ACLU’s work on behalf of religious freedom, please check out this website.

Take Action: We rely on people like you to be our eyes and ears on the ground. Real, lasting change can only happen when we stand up for our civil liberties, one person, one community at a time. Join the Community Action Network and fight on behalf of religious freedom.

Religious Freedom Quiz: Think you know all about the role of religious liberty in American history? Here’s a quiz to test your knowledge of our Founders’ views on religion.

Separation of Church and State: a Debate as Old as American Patriotism

By Jeffrey Adams
Summer Legal Intern

On the anniversary of our nation’s independence, Americans celebrate freedom, but do you know where it comes from? For example, think about the the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Do you know how the phrase “separation of church and State” originated? You won’t find it in the Constitution.

In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson used the now-famous “wall of separation” metaphor to describe the ideal relationship between church and State:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State

Jefferson is revered as one of the earliest American patriots. He drafted the Declaration of Independence that marked our break from English rule. Three years later, he authored The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom that was a precursor to the First Amendment. Later, while serving as our third U.S. President, Jefferson wrote his famous response to the Danbury Baptists.

But the analogy is older than that. It was coined, as far as anyone can tell, by Roger Williams, the founder of the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America. Williams, a Puritan who fled from religious persecution, himself, wrote in 1644 of “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Although Jefferson was not present for the Philadelphia Convention where the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, he led advocates for the religious freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. He borrowed Williams’ analogy to explain why the Founders thought it was so important. After all, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina all proposed something similar to the language of the First Amendment before they would agree to ratify the new Constitution.

In 1878, the Supreme Court invoked Jefferson’s Danbury letter in Reynolds v. U.S., a case that challenged the Constitutionality of a federal law criminalizing bigamy. To determine whether the anti-bigamy law infringed on an individual’s rights, the Court had to interpret the meaning of the First Amendment and noted that “religion” was not defined anywhere by the drafters: “We must go elsewhere, therefore, to ascertain its meaning, and nowhere more appropriately, we think, than to the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted.” The Court reviewed the political and legal environment at the time the Bill of Rights was drafted, noting that states had routinely collected taxes in support of particular religious sects and punished citizens for failing to attend public worship ceremonies. Against this backdrop of government interference in religion, the Court viewed Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists as “an authoritative declaration of the scope” of the First Amendment. And, thus, the “separation of church and State” became enshrined in judicial precedent.

Interestingly, the controversy over this separation is as old as the republic, itself. Jefferson, a believer in decentralized government and Republican party leader, was reviled by the Federalists of the time for his persistent refusal to proclaim a day of thanksgiving or prayer. Jefferson’s refusal to do so was based on his belief that government should not interfere in the religious life of its citizens, and to endorse a day of thanksgiving was, he thought, an exploitation of religion. He believed that in breaking away from the rule of England, we also had to break from their tradition of State-controlled religion. His opponents responded by labeling him a godless Republican. If we look at the disagreement surrounding religious conversations today, the scrutiny given to the faith beliefs of presidential candidates and other public figures, we see that not much has changed.

This July 4th, remember the quintessential American freedom to disagree, and celebrate your right to believe freely without repression or coercion from anyone, especially the government.

Juneteenth: Can we celebrate our way to racial justice?

Kate Vickery
Legislative Intern

I grew up in a small town in rural Michigan where Juneteenth was definitely not part of the summer celebrations. The historical impact of the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 was not deeply felt in my lily-white community, where the annual tractor parade often featured high school students driving heavy farming equipment bedecked with confederate flags.

In 2005, Michigan became the 18th state to officially declare the Juneteenth holiday but Juneteenth has never been celebrated in my hometown.

The context for Juneteenth has changed for me now that I live in Texas, where Juneteenth was born.  Long celebrated in the Lone Star State, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in 1980 thanks to state Representative Al Edwards. Since then, the holiday has been celebrated in more and more communities, from Galveston to San Antonio, from Nacogdoches to El Paso.

This year, Houston Mayor, Annise Parker, announced plans to begin renovations on the historic Emancipation Park in order to create a “magnet for history tourism and for neighboring private development.” At the state capitol, efforts to reboot an African American Texan memorial sculpture after a Juneteenth sculpture was scrapped under a cloud of controversy are underway.

Juneteenth should certainly be a celebration to honor the end of slavery in the United States. It should also be a reminder of how far we have to go to attain racial justice and equality.

Eric Tang, assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, points to Austin as a place that needs to take a serious look at how it is serving its African American community.  Infant mortality, HIV diagnoses, and the number of children removed from their families by child welfare agencies is significantly higher for African Americans in Austin than in other parts of the country. Even as the wealth gap between blacks and whites in Austin reaches a 30-year high, community resources like the Northeast Community Care Center are being shut down.

Whether we’re in a small town in rural Michigan, or Austin, a city that claims superlatives like “healthiest,” “most liberal,” “best places to raise kids” and “most sustainable,” our commitment to racial justice needs to continue well after the last Juneteenth celebrations come to a close this year.

How We Celebrate the Season: Merry Christmas from the ACLU of Texas!

By Victor Cornell
Austin Regional Coordinator

Although you may have heard that the ACLU of Texas is anti-religion or anti-Christian, the truth is quite the opposite.  The ACLU and the ACLU of Texas have long defended the rights of all of us to practice our religion freely, regardless of any particular religious affiliation, without government interference.

Religion plays a prominent role in American public life. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and cathedrals are plainly visible in the public sphere and their right to display religious symbols and to construct religious edifices is protected by the Constitution and by statutes.  We have supported the right of people to preach their religion in public places and to go door-to-door to spread their religious messages. The Constitution properly protects the right of religious figures to preach their messages over the public airwaves. Religious books, magazines, and newspapers are freely published and delivered through the U.S. Postal System. Even in our public schools, students’ right to pray and talk about their faith is protected.  No other industrialized democracy has as much religion in the public square as does the United States.

This religious freedom is a fundamental human right that is guaranteed by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses.  The First Amendment of the Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  It encompasses not only the right to believe (or not to believe), but also the right to express and to manifest religious beliefs. These rights should not be subject to the political process and majority votes.

The Constitution does not endorse any religious creed, and it does not give government the right to decide theological questions. Beliefs about the nature of God are a proper subject for individuals, families, religious communities, and theologians, but not for government bodies such as the U.S. Congress or a local school board.  The government has no business telling any American what to believe in religious matters or deciding which side to support – symbolically or financially – in religious questions.  We should constantly remind ourselves that religion is a fundamental right that needs to be protected.

Hopefully, now that you know the facts about the ACLU of Texas and Christmas, you can avoid bearing false witness and (should you so desire) be empowered to set the record straight.  Merry Christmas from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas!

Share this holiday greeting card from the ACLU with friends and family.

How We Celebrate the Season: Christmas in the Public Square

By Victor Cornell
Austin Regional Coordinator

We get a lot of questions and complaints this time of year about religious holiday displays.  So we thought we’d take this opportunity to set the record straight.

The First Amendment guarantees individuals, families, businesses, and religious communities the right to display Christmas symbols. This right is well established and is exercised annually by private individuals and entities across the country. The difficulty comes when the government decides that it wants to get involved in promoting some religious symbols or prohibiting others.

The existing guidelines are actually pretty simple.  First, public Christmas displays (including nativity scenes) erected and paid for by individuals, religious organizations or other nongovernmental groups are perfectly acceptable at homes and churches. This religious expression is a valued and protected part of the First Amendment rights guaranteed to all citizens.

Second, government-sponsored religious displays, including those at courthouses, town halls and other governmental properties are not okay, except in certain specific instances (such as being one element of a larger, seasonal holiday display that includes other religions.)  These displays wrongly presume that government should make judgments about religion.  Governments should not be in the business of endorsing religious displays. Religion does best when government stays out of the business of deciding which holidays and religions to promote. Religion belongs where it prospers best: with individuals, families and religious communities.

See, I told you it was simple!

For interesting blogs on the ACLU’s 12 days of Religious Liberty, follow the ACLU of Texas on twitter!

How We Celebrate the Season: The AC in ACLU-TX Does Not Stand for ‘Anti-Christian’

By Victor Cornell
Austin Regional Coordinator

Every year around this time, we, at the ACLU of Texas, get messages asking why we oppose Christianity.  Because the ACLU is often better known for its work preventing the government from promoting and funding religion, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that we do not zealously defend the rights of all religious believers to practice their faith.  But the truth is we’ve done an awful lot of work on behalf of self-identified Christians.

In 2010, we joined with the national ACLU to file a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Texas prisoner who sued after prison officials denied him the opportunity to participate in Christian worship services.

We also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a Christian pastor and his faith-based rehabilitation facility in Sinton, Texas. The ACLU of Texas urged the court to reverse a decision that had prohibited the pastor from operating his rehabilitation program near his church and also had sharply limited the reach of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA). In June 2009, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with us and ruled in favor of the pastor.

My personal favorite happened just this year.  In April, we filed an amicus brief in support of students in the Plano school district who wanted to include pencils with religious messages (like ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’) in holiday gift bags.

So remember, when we say we’re fighting for your religious freedom, we really mean it!  We are defending the rights of all Texans to practice their faiths freely and pushing back against government intrusion into matters of faith. Up next we’ll clarify some of the rules surrounding Christmas displays in the public square.

How We Celebrate the Season: The Truth about the ‘War on Christmas’

By Victor Cornell
Austin Regional Coordinator

It’s that time of the year again, when the ACLU of Texas starts receiving email and cards reminding us that the holiday is called Christmas and telling us that we’re on the losing side in the so-called ‘war on Christmas’.  The truth is, not only is there no war on Christmas, but if they knew what we really stood for, most of those letter writers would realize that we’re actually on their side.

From nativity scenes at churches to crosses in front yards, symbols of Christmas are pervasive in the public and private square. And, except when the government is being used to promote religious beliefs, it is entirely constitutional.  Christmas is not only safe; it’s constitutionally protected (for those unfamiliar with our work – that’s what we do)!

Some of the cards we receive are from people who are themselves promoting distinctly non-christian symbols in the name of saving Christmas.  They worry that we want to ban Christmas trees (evergreens were a pre-Christian Roman symbol for fertility throughout the winter months) or the singing of secular carols in this non-existent ‘war.’

The truth is, there is no ‘war on Christmas.’  But even if there was, the ACLU of Texas would be a combatant on the side of people expressing and practicing their individual faiths (or no faith at all) without government interference, exactly as the founders intended.

But keep sending us cards – we’ll take them in the spirit we hope they’re intended, as lovely holiday wishes for those defending all Texans’ religious rights!  In upcoming blogs as part of our How We Celebrate the Season series, we’ll discuss other aspects of how we celebrate here at the ACLU of Texas.