The Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted Prescott public schools, the City of Prescott, Yavapai County and the Arizona Secretary of State over their support and participation in a devotional Christmas celebration in front of the county courthouse in downtown Prescott, Ariz., that crosses the constitutional line.
FFRF has over 19,000 members, with more than 500 in Arizona, including in Prescott, and a local chapter based in Phoenix, The Valley of the Sun Chapter. This ceremony excludes the “almost one million Arizonans [who] are not Christian,” according to the American Religious Identification Survey (2008) for Arizona.
A local FFRF member who attended the Dec. 1 ceremony reported that it “was like going to church.” Video of the ceremony supports the claim. The ceremony, conducted “on behalf of the City of Prescott and Yavapai County,” included Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett reading from the Gospels and hundreds of public schoolchildren singing explicitly devotional Christian songs at the direction of a public school teacher.
Bennett has been engaged in this ceremony for the past 20 years, during which time he was on the Arizona Board of Education, including two terms as president, and a member of the state Senate.
“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,’ ” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a Dec. 12, 2012 letter to all public officials involved.
A copy of the letter can be read here.
Among Supreme Court rulings Seidel cited was this caveat: “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). Seidel noted that “the city, county, state and schools far exceeded this constitutional limitation during this ceremony.”
The “story” Bennett read was text from the book of Luke in the Christian bible, chapters one and two. The songs the children were asked to sing were overtly religious as well. “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.”