Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

11.29.2006

No Reception for Immaculate Conception

By Shawn Healy
The Mayor's Office of Special Events in Chicago turned down an offer from New Line Cinema to sponsor Christkindlmarket to the tune of $12,000 in exchange for an on-site screening of "The Nativity Story." The office first suggested the film would prove "insensitive to people of different faiths," but later changed its tune, merely objecting to the "blatant commercial message."

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.

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SHAWN HEALY

Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project


Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.



Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.


First Amendment journalism initiative


The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at



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McCormick Foundation

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Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project


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