On December 1, 2012, a Courthouse Lighting Ceremony took place in the City of Prescott, Arizona's Officlal Christmas City, as designated by Governor Rose Mofford. This 58th annual event was sponsored by the Prescott Chamber of Commerce. Local children sang Christmas carols, and Secretary of State Ken Bennett came to his hometown to read the Christmas story. Towards the end of the event, the trees surrounding the Courthouse were lit, the spectators joined the children in singing Jingle Bells and a good time was had by all.
Here at Prescott eNews, we published a video of the less-than-17-minute event to YouTube.
Well, almost all had a good time, but evidently a few were unhappy.
By December 12, the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) had drafted a letter addressed to: Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, David C. Smucker, Mrs. Totsy McCraley and Matthew Kiesling, complaining about the ceremony, and claiming that it "endorsed" Christianity.
"According to our local member and complainant, the ceremony "was like going to church," the letter from FFRF claims. The letter was signed by Andrew L. Seidel, a Staff Attorney.
Comments Left on the YouTube Page
The video also incurred some hostile comments, such as that of Suzy W, resident of an unspecified location in the United States, who wrote, "Violating the Constitution merely because it is held in front of the Courthouse. Move it to private property."
Hatebear, identified as being from Pasadena, wrote, "This is ridiculous! It would be one thing if the choir was from a private school and this was held at a church but having public school children sing prayer songs and reading the bible on government property and at a community event??? This really crosses a line and is NOT okay. I hope they choose to change this tradition or see legal action against them if they do not."
Mark Bender, who claims on YouTube to hail from Savannah, was even more hostile, "Get this illegal, unconstitutional crap out of the public schools, off the taxpayer funded public property and back in the christian churches where it belongs. I'd be pissed if my child was forced to sing and proselytize christianity endorsed (forced) by the government. Just because this is tradition for 20 years doesn't absolve it from the requirements of the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause. (Slavery was traditional in the US too) Shame on you Prescott, AZ."
Someone ironically using the moniker of "Baby Jesus" and identifying simply the United States as where he (or she) is from, claims to own a house in Prescott, but is not a permanent resident. This person is not interested in giving their true name. 'Baby Jesus' (henceforth referred to as BJ) gave a link to the letter from FFRF, stating, "Here is a link to the lawsuit describing the unconstitutionality of this event."
When it was pointed out to BJ that this was simply a letter, not a legal court filing, BJ's response was to give a not-so-subtle threat, "My apologies, you are correct. I dont believe there is a lawsuit as of yet, likely only in the event the city does not agree to abide by the constitution in relation to this matter moving forward."
By his own admission, BJ did not attend the lighting ceremony. "Wow. I wanted to attend this event but was out of town.... Little did I know it was barely more than a church service to light the square. 100% unacceptable."
Clearing Up Misconceptions
Unfortunately, Attorney Seidel, BJ and the other commenters are operating under some misconceptions.
First and foremost, the Courthouse Lighting is not a government-sponsored event. This event is sponsored by the Prescott Chamber of Commerce. To use the Square, certain procedures apply to the Chamber as they do to any other organization. As the Travel+Leisure website explains, "Prescott holds almost all community events—craft fairs, concerts, political speeches, art exhibits, antique shows, and seasonal celebrations—at Courthouse Plaza, just as it has since city planners mapped the square in 1864. The 4.1-acre square, with the 1916 granite courthouse at its center, anchors the town's still-lively historic district of shops, cafes, bookstores, and art galleries."
Ken Bennett was raised in Prescott, owned and operated businesses in Prescott, served on Prescott's City Council as Mayor, and even coached YCSO soccer teams. Is he Secretary of State? Yes, that is his work title. But, to many people living in Prescott, he's just 'Ken'. If the CEO of the Chamber chooses to identify him as Secretary of State, so be it. Bennett never identified himself as Secretary of State, nor did he imply in any way that he was there officially. Actually, he came up completely on his own, without any staff members and stayed with family.
After erroneously claiming that some "600 or 700 public school students" made up the choir, Seidel also jumps to the conclusion that the government "used public school personnel to organize the choir..." But the government didn't use public school personnel to do anything because the government wasn't the sponsor. The Chamber has no way to "use" public school personnel, except on a voluntary basis.
Jumping to another unfounded conclusion, Seidel states, "Undoubtedly, the recruitment, training, and organization occurred during the school day and on the taxpayers' dime."
Did that happen in whole or part? Seidel doesn't know, he's guessing.
So, What Does the FFRF Want?
Recognizing that 80% of Americans are religious, Seidel, apparently advocates that the rights of those that are non-religious are the most important when he points out, "The ceremony excluded the 19% of the American population that is nonreligious."
And so, Seidel takes the liberty of telling the residents of Prescott how to celebrate the Courthouse Lighting. He graciously provides a list of songs he, and presumably members of his organization, personally find inoffensive and acceptable, making it clear they would strenuously object to any hint of Christianity or religion.
In the final paragraph, Siedel dictates, "In the future, this ceremony should not include bible readings and Christian hymns. Stick to secular songs and symbols like the tree lighting, Santa, and reindeer."
Welcome to the Xmas City.
Re: Prescott Christmas Ceremony on Dec. I, 2012 Dear City, County, State and School Officials:
Our national organization, which works to keep state and church separate, has been contacted by taxpayers and residents of Prescott who strenuously oppose Arizona public schools, the City of Prescott, Yavapai County and the Arizona Secretary of State endorsing Christianity during the courthouse lighting ceremony. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), has over 19,000 members including more than 500 members in Arizona, Prescott members, and a local chapter based in Phoenix, The Valley of the Sun Chapter.
On December 1, 2012, in Prescott, Arizona, the City ofPrescott and Yavapai County held an official government ceremony in front of the Yavapai County Courthouse, in Courthouse Square. According to our local member and complainant, the ceremony "was like going to church." Video verifies this observation. A full transcript is attached and a copy of the video can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ6fDGV_fJ0. If this video is removed we have a digitally archived copy we can send to you.
The ceremony began with David Maurer of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce speaking to the crowd: "On behalf of the City of Prescott and Yavapai County, we are proud to welcome you to the 58th annual courthouse lighting in Arizona's Christmas City, Prescott." Maurer went on to introduce the choir director and narrator: "Our Christmas story tonight is presented by the Prescott Area School Players under the direction of Mr. Matt Kiesling. Our narrator, for the 20th consecutive year, now Arizona Secretary of State, Mr. Ken Bennett."
"The Christmas Story" is nothing more than passages from the book of Luke in the Christian bible punctuated by religious music. For instance, Secretary Bennett mirrored Luke 1 :26-31 1 when he said: "and it came to pass in those days, that the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, named Nazareth. He came to a virgin named Mary who was betrothed to Joseph of the house of David. And appearing to her the angel said, 'the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.' Mary was troubled at the sight of him and by his words, and the angel said to her 'do not fear Mary for you have found favor with God. Behold you shall conceive and bring forth a son and you shall call him Jesus.' "
Secretary Bennett's bible readings were interspersed with religious choir music. The choir, directed by Matt Kiesling, a public school teacher, is constituted primarily of almost 600 or 700 public school students. Local news stories of earlier ceremonies report "Kiesling said of the event that regularly draws students from all of the local schools and many out-of-town schools as well. 'All of the teachers in all of Yavapai County are invited to bring their students, ' Kiesling said, adding that the event also is open to students of charter schools and those who are home-schooled." The ceremony required the extensive use of public schools, public school employees, and public resources to teach public school students overtly religious music including: Oh Come all Ye Faithful; Gloria in excelsis Deo (Angels We Have Heard on High); Little Town of Bethlehem; Away in a Manger; Silent Night, Holy Night; The First Noel; and Joy to the World. In fact, seven of the eight songs performed by the children were sectarian (Christian) and only one, "Jingle Bells," was appropriately secular. This ceremony, which we understand has been performed in its present form for at least 20, and possibly almost 60, years raises several serious constitutional concerns for Arizona public schools, the City of Prescott, Yavapai County and the Arizona Secretary of State.
Official government endorsement of the Christian religion
The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages. The Supreme Court has said time and again, that the "First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion." McCreary County, Ky. v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U.S. 844, 860 (2005); Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985); Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 104 (1968); Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing, 330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (194 7). By officially endorsing the teachings at the heart of the Christian religion, reading from the Christian bible, teaching public school children Christian hymns, the county, city, and state have violated their duty to remain neutral.
The American Standard Version of the mirrored biblical text reads: 26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. 31 And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
Your inappropriate actions exclude and offend a significant portion of the Arizona population that is non-Christian or non-religious. This official ceremony unconstitutionally "send[s] the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents 'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.' " Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 309-310 (2000)(quoting Lynch v. Donnelly). The ceremony excluded the 19% of the American population that is nonreligious. Not only are 1 in 5 Americans nonreligious, younger Americans are the least religious population in the country: 1 in 3 citizens aged 18-29 are not religious. Survey and census data show that almost one million Arizonans are not Christian.
The religious music, bible reading, the references to angels and Jesus as "savior," and the virgin birth of Jesus illustrate the clearly religious nature of this event. Words have meaning, whether spoken or sung, and words of this ceremony undoubtedly espoused the Christian religion. Indeed the song lyrics preclude any possibility of a mere cultural celebration. To address only one of the seven songs, Joy to the World's lyrics include references to "the Lord," our " King," "Heaven," "the Savior reigns," "sins," "He rules the world through truth and grace" and "His righteousness." According to the opening verse of the song the world is meant to feel joy because "The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room ... " This proclaims Jesus the King of the Earth and asks every listener to become Christian. In other words, the government stamp of approval is given to a song not only espousing Christianity, but also proselytizing for Christianity. The other lyrics are just as sectarian-if not more so-and can be found on the enclosed transcript. The Supreme Court has stated: "The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting people praise God for the birth of Jesus." Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 601 (1989). The city, county, state and schools far exceeded this constitutional limitation during this ceremony.
Secretary of State appearing in his official capacity to read from the bible The United States Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion. The Supreme Court has specifically stated, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. lf there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us." West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).
When weighing in on religious belief, the government divides, not unites, our society. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled: "The Framers and the citizens of their time intended to guard ... against the civic divisiveness that follows when the government weighs in on one side of religious debate; nothing does a better job of roiling society." McCreary County, Ky. v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 876, 881 (2005). In fact, the "purposes of the First Amendment's Religion Clauses [are] to assure the fullest possible scope of religious liberty and tolerance for all, to avoid the religious divisiveness that promotes social conflict, and to maintain the separation of church and state." Van Orden v. Peny, 545 U.S. 677, 678 (2005).
When the Arizona Secretary of State stands in front of citizens, using his official title, he is acting as a government official, not as a private citizen. When he reads from the Christian bible in his official capacity, he is endorsing the Christian religion for the government, not exercising his own religious values or beliefs. If you wish to endorse religious events and religious beliefs, you must do so in your private capacity as a citizen, not in your official capacity as the Arizona Secretary of State.
Regardless of who is narrating, it is impossible for a government ceremony to constitutionally include the reading of Christian bible verses claiming that Jesus was born of a virgin and that angels heralded this birth, even under the guise of reading "The Christmas Story." The ceremony took place on government property in front of the County courthouse that houses the county and city courts, was an offic ial city and county ceremony, and included local and state government dignitaries, and public schoolchildren. Every reasonable observer would believe this bore the official stamp of the government. Therefore the government must remain neutral about religion at the ceremony. No matter who is reading or singing, the ceremony may not appear-as this one so shamelessly did- to endorse Christianity over other faiths or religion over nonreligion.
Public Schoolchildren being taught and singing religious songs
The newspaper reports quoted above show that the students participating in this ceremony were taught these religious songs by public school teachers, invited to participate in the concert by those teachers, and that those teachers organized their students' participation. Undoubtedly, the recruitment, training, and organization occurred during the school day and on the taxpayers' dime. It is wholly inappropriate for a public school teacher to teach songs of Christian worship in a public school setting. This music has a devotional message and would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school or government ceremony. There are a multitude of secular songs that would be appropriate. While one secular song made the program, the balance of the program is Christian, and therefore unconstitutional. The songs were chosen to emphasize the bible passages read.
Teaching young and impress ionable students pervasively Christian music in a public school violates the First Amendment. It is well settled that public schools may not advance or endorse religion. See generally, Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992); Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985); Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 ( 1967); Sch. Dist. of Abington Twshp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963); Engel v. Vitale , 370 U.S. 421 (1962). Courts have reviewed religious music in public schools and held that its use must comport with the Establishment Clause. See Nurre v. Whitehead, 580 F.3d I 087, I 097 (9th Cir. 2009). In Nurre, the Ninth Circuit, which also has jurisdiction over Arizona, held that barring religious music from high school graduations was constitutionally permissible.
The fact that participation in this choir may have been voluntary is irrelevant. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation. See, generally, Weisman at 596 ("the State cannot require one of its citizens to forfeit his or her rights and benefits as the price of resisting conformance to state-sponsored religious practice."); Schempp at 288 (Brennan, J ., concurring) ("Thus, the short, and to me sufficient, answer is that the availability of excusal or exemption simply has no relevance to the establishment question ... "); Mellen at 372 (" ... VMI cannot avoid Establishment Clause problems by simply asserting that a cadet's attendance at supper or his or her participation in the supper prayer are 'voluntary.' ").
Moreover, because the government sponsored the ceremony and because it used public school personnel to organize the choir, children and parents have a legitimate expectation that Mr. Kiesling will teach their children secular songs. If the teachers and choir director wish to repeat this performance next year they must do so with secular songs, including the sole secular tune the children sang at the ceremony, Jingle Bells. There are plenty that celebrate the season:
- Deck the Halls
- White Christmas
- Let it Snow
- Rockin ' Around the Christmas Tree
- Most Wonderful Time of the Year
- Frosty the Snowman
- It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
- Silver Bells Winter Wonderland
- Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer
- Santa Claus is coming to town
- All 1 want for Christmas
- Have yourself a Merry little Christmas
- Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
- I'll be Home for Christmas
- The Twelve Days of Christmas
This ceremony flouted the First Amendment requirement that state and church remain separate. The public schools, city, county, and state all clearly endorsed the central tenets of Christianity: that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he is humanity's "savior."
When striking down a nativity in a County Courthouse as a violation of the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court noted that its religious meaning was " unmistakably clear. 'Glory to God in the Highest! ' says the angel in the creche-Glory to God because of the birth of Jesus. This praise to God in Christian terms is indisputably religious-indeed sectarian-just as it is when said in the Gospel or in a church service." Allegheny at 598. The Court could have been writing about the Prescott ceremony. Not only did our local member remark that the ceremony "was like going to church" but the children sang the very phrase "Glory to God in the Highest," during Gloria in excelsis Deo, the Latin translation ofthat phrase. The religious meaning of this ceremony was "unmistakably clear" to all viewers; it praised God in indisputably Christian terms.
Any future courthouse lighting ceremony must adhere to the constitution requirement that, "The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting people praise God for the birth of Jesus.'' !d. at 601. Public schoolchildren cannot be taught and asked to sing explicitly and almost exclusively religious songs as pa11 ofthe school curriculum or events or for an official government ceremony. The city, county, and state cannot endorse the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin to be our savior. In the future, this ceremony should not include bible readings and Christian hymns. Stick to secular songs and symbols like the tree lighting, Santa, and reindeer. May we hear from you,
Andrew L. Seidel
Editor's note: Due to formatting, we omitted the footnotes from this letter, and also the transcript. However, you can read it in its entirety at the FFRF website.
Article: 'Arizona's Christmas City' Violates Constitution