No Reception for Immaculate Conception
Culture warriors are certain to be up in arms in what they see as a battlefield in the annual "War on Christmas." The extent to which religious displays in the public square pass First Amendment tests is contextual and thus a few details are necessary before we discuss court precedents.
Christkindlmarket is organized annually by the German American Chamber of Commerce, held at Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago, and literally means "Christ child market." A gigantic Christmas tree illuminated by Mayor Daley punctuates the plaza of the same name, and is accompanied by a Nativity scene, a giant menorah, and a Muslim crescent. The market itself sells a variety of food and trinkets and has been in operation for 11 years, attracting an average of 1 million visitors over the course of a month.
Two Supreme Court cases inform us relative to the constitutionality of a nativity scene and probably a film depicting the birth of Christ. The Court allowed Pawtucket, Rhode Island to maintain its Nativity scene accompanied by Santa Claus's house, a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and a Christmas tree in the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly. Even though the city owned all elements of the display, the Court found no violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The city merely intended to celebrate a national holiday and show its historic origins.
The picture grows murkier in the 1989 case County of Allegheny v. ACLU. A Nativity scene placed in the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh was deemed in violation of the Establishment Clause, while a menorah outside the doors of the City-County Building a block away was not. The latter was displayed alongside a Christmas tree and accompanied by a sign proclaiming "Salute to Liberty." Justice Blackmun reached this conclusion amongst a divided Court, claiming the menorah was situated with secular symbols, and is used by non-practicing Jews as a symbol of the holiday season in line with the Christmas tree, not to mention its framing beneath an umbrella of religious liberty identified by the banner. The Nativity scene, on the other hand, was isolated, clearly represents a religious message, and thus stood in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Given the context of Christkindlmarket, one would assume that the Lynch v. Donnelly precedent prevails given a mix of secular and religious symbols more diverse than the two cases cited. A screening of "The Nativity Story" would only add to this mix, and 24 other cities apparently arrived at this conclusion. Los Angeles, for example, incorporated the film into its tree lighting ceremony.
Moreover, the film seems to have an overt tie to the history of the event, "Christ Child Market." The city's excessive commercialism argument appears hypocritical given the "MARKET" on the site it already enables. It's clear that the city's fear of offending non-Christians is "much ado about nothing," and the opportunity cost of this spineless response is $12,000 and a free movie for Chicagoans.