December 2005 -This past Christmas season we all heard the shrill “Merry Christmas” campaign of talk radio hosts and others around the country, including Oregon, who believe that too many people and businesses are afraid to say “Merry Christmas” and instead use alternative terms such as “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” because the big, bad ACLU will sue them otherwise.

We hate to disappoint the Bill O’Reillys and Lars Larsons of the world, but we think they are barking up the wrong tree be it a holiday, Christmas or Doug fir tree. The ACLU isn’t anti-religion rather ACLU has always stood for government-free religion.

For example, on November 23, 2005, the Tillamook County Board of Commissioners, by a unanimous vote of 3-0, decided to allow sectarian religious displays and messages to be placed on the public lawn outside the main entrance to the Tillamook County Courthouse. The unattended displays and messages consisted of: (1) a large sign that reads “Keep Christ in Christmas;” (2) a nativity scene or creche; and (3) another large sign that reads “Sponsored by the Merry Christmas People.” At the same meeting, the County Commissioners unanimously voted to approve a resolution proclaiming Tillamook County to be a “Merry Christmas County.”

The ACLU did not run to file a lawsuit, rather we sent a letter to the Tillamook County’s legal counsel expressing our concern that the simultaneous adoption of the resolution and the posting of a “Keep Christ in Christmas” sign and creche display reinforce a reasonable observer’s belief that the county is endorsing sectarian religious beliefs. Further, the overtly sectarian religious signage and display reinforce a reasonable observer’s belief that the county had a religious motivation in adopting the resolution. Additionally, the sign indicating “Sponsored by the Merry Christmas People” does not state or explain that “The Merry Christmas People” are not part of the Tillamook County government which just declared itself to be a “Merry Christmas County.”

Our letter asks the County to take some actions, including a request that the county (1) conspicuously post an appropriate disclaimer that makes clear the religious sign and display were placed by private persons not affiliated with the county government; (2) that Tillamook County does not endorse any sectarian religious viewpoint; (3) that the resolution be modified; and (4) that Tillamook County has declared this area to be an “open public forum,” open for all other private persons and organizations desiring to post their own expressions of free speech. The county’s legal counsel responded to some of our concerns and we hope to be able to work with the county to have all of our concerns addressed well before next December.

The ACLU believes that it is important not to discriminate among types of private speech that may be expressed in an open public forum, including private religious speech, and that a reasonable observer should not be able to conclude that private religious speech has been endorsed or fostered by government. The ACLU supports the rights of individuals to worship freely and we believe the best places to express one’s religious beliefs are in our homes, churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship. However, religious beliefs can be conveyed on public property so long as that property is truly an open, public forum available to all and open to any and all speech protected by the constitution.

Michael Simon of the Perkins Coie law firm is the ACLU’s cooperating attorney on this issue.