Federal government bans religious references on ornaments for 2009 Capitol Christmas Tree

ADF attorneys send letter to federal, state officials after Arizona schoolchildren chosen to decorate D.C. tree, but told to keep religion out
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz.
— Alliance Defense Fund attorneys sent a letter to federal and state officials, including Arizona Governor Janice Brewer Monday, calling for them to stop enforcing a requirement prohibiting the state’s schoolchildren from expressing religious viewpoints through Christmas themes while decorating ornaments for the 2009 Capitol Christmas Tree. Arizona was chosen this year to present 4,000 handcrafted ornaments made by elementary, middle-school, and high-school students to decorate Washington, D.C.’s annual Christmas tree.

“Banning Christmas from the Capitol Christmas tree is just absurd. Christian students shouldn’t be discriminated against for expressing their religious beliefs,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Jonathan Scruggs.  “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.”

On behalf of a mother whose son strongly desires to submit three ornaments for the tree, ADF attorneys sent a letter to state and federal officials demanding that they abandon the prohibition of religious viewpoints so that the child may participate in the unique opportunity. One of the ornaments will read “Merry Christmas,” another will say “Happy Birthday, Jesus,” and the third will portray a manger scene with the baby Jesus.  Each of these ornaments will also honor Arizona, using as a theme the state’s history, geography, or motto, “Ditat Deus,” which means “God Enriches.” ADF attorneys indicate in the letter that they will take legal action if officials do not comply by October 4, the day before the deadline to submit ornaments for consideration.

“It is well established that expression of religious beliefs is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” the letter reads. “Religious expression is speech and is entitled to the same level of protection as other kinds of speech... Even expression that comes through symbols, such as ornaments…”

Arizona was given the special privilege this year to provide Washington, D.C., with the 2009 Capitol Christmas Tree. Students from elementary, middle, and high schools were given criteria to construct and decorate 4,000 handcrafted ornaments for the 65-foot tree as a coordinated effort with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, the Apache Natural Resources Conservation District, the Arizona Public Education Department, students, businesses, and the community. 

Guidelines for the ornaments include specifications for their size, weight, composition, and the directive that “Ornaments cannot reflect a religious or political theme… Instead share your interpretation of our theme ‘Arizona’s Gift, from the Grand Canyon State.’” It is also stated that the ornaments “will provide wonderful opportunities for Arizona school children to demonstrate what Arizona means to them… Whether they represent our world-renowned landscapes, our diverse cultures, or other aspects of our state, the ornaments will help convey the particular beauty that is Arizona.” But, if students want to convey that Arizona has a religious significance to them, they are denied the opportunity offered to students with non-religious views.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.