It’s that time of year again. Seasonal holiday displays are beginning to dot our subdivisions and public spaces. Although most will conform to mainstream cultural, religious and societal norms, the ones that don’t create discomfort or even outrage, spurring calls for government authorities to order them to be removed. When governments do not act, it is not unheard of for citizens to take on the task themselves by removing or destroying the offensive display, risking criminal charges or even arrest in doing so.
There are two broad categories of offensive displays, those on private property and those placed by governments on public property; each has differing legal considerations. Property owners have a broad first amendment right to free expression of their views, and governments are limited in their power to have seasonal displays removed due to their offensive content, no matter how controversial or upsetting to neighbors. Thus begets a resident who decorated his house on a busy street just down from an elementary school with a Halloween display that included the typical spiders and ghosts but also a gas mask wearing nun holding a crucifix, a skeleton, and scenes of graphic violence. Neighbors asked local law enforcement officers to shut it down, but they correctly determined that offensive as it was it did not violate local laws. The display was permitted to remain.
Officials unsuccessfully tried to order a home owner, a plumber, to remove ten toilets from his roof that he festooned with seasonal decorations such as reindeer antlers at Christmas, cupids on Valentine’s Day and leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day. A horror movie fan who placed a nativity scene in front of his home that included zombie representations for Mary, Joseph and the wise men as well as a little zombie Jesus was ordered to remove the display on the basis that the structure was an illegal accessory structure, despite the fact that such action was not taken for more traditional nativity scenes.
A home owner who erected a large, arrow pierced, heart shaped sign illuminated with pink lights for Valentine’s Day was cited for illegally having holiday lights and decorations except from mid-November to mid-January. Not only did this raise Equal Protection issues for followers of religions that celebrate holidays that fall outside the allowable dates, but it also burdens the home owners’ protected right to express themselves on their own property free from governmental interference.
Seasonal displays that contain religious elements that are placed on public property must allow the incorporation of symbols or themes of other religions. Otherwise such displays would unconstitutionally advance one religion over another. Traditional seasonal displays that contain Judeo Christian religious themes such as nativity scenes or menorahs must offer room for displays of less conventional religious beliefs. Under recent Supreme Court rulings, governments are limited in their power to determine the sincerity of the proponents’ religious beliefs. Thus, around the country holiday displays of creches and menorahs have to make room, if requested, for displays by groups such as the Satanic Temple, the American Humanist Association, atheist groups, and Pastafarians (who profess to venerate the flying spaghetti monster). Outraged citizens in several cases, such as a women in Florida wearing a “take a stand against Satan” t shirt destroyed a Satanic Temple display on the Florida state capitol grounds that depicted an angel flying in to the flames of Hell. The display was restored and the woman was arrested. The spokesperson for the Christian group who arranged the traditional nativity scene on the capitol grounds stated that as much as she did not like the Satanic Temple display, it is a matter of free speech and should not be vandalized.
Over time it will be interesting to see how non-traditional seasonal displays, particularly on public property, are treated. Either many new and original manifestations of religious expression will be permitted to join the majority Judeo-Christian displays, or governments and the public will simply decide to prohibit all such displays.