The holidays are upon us.  That means spending time with loved ones, good food, presents, and, of course, controversial holiday displays.  Under the First Amendment, government must treat all religions equally and cannot take any action that would unreasonably burden religious exercise unless it has a compelling reason to do so.  Sometimes, local governments receive requests for provocative holiday displays on public grounds.  Other times, they may receive complaints to take action to prevent over-the-top private holiday displays.  In each instance, local governments might feel as though their hands are tied under the First Amendment to do anything but allow the displays.  While nothing will ever quite live up to that one haunted house worker in Ohio who used zombies to create a nativity scene, baby-fanged Jesus and all (read more here), below are some of our favorite stories for 2018.

The Satanic Temple’s holiday display in the Illinois statehouse. The Chicago chapter of the Satanic Temple has placed a holiday display in the Illinois statehouse.  Alongside a Hanukkah menorah and a Christian nativity scene is a four-and-a-half foot tall sculpture of a woman’s arm with a snake coiled around it, and holding an apple in her hand.  A plaque below the statute states: “Knowledge is the Greatest Gift.”  With the display, the Satanic Temple states that it is trying to counteract what it calls “religious tyranny” using displays like this.  A sign hanging in the statehouse rotunda explains the reason for allowing the display:

“The State of Illinois is required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to allow temporary, public displays in the state capitol so long as these displays are not paid for by taxpayer dollars. Because the first floor of the Capitol Rotunda is a public place, state officials cannot legally censor the content of speech or displays. The United States Supreme Court has held that public officials may legally impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions regarding displays and speeches, but no regulation can be based on the content of the speech.”

The Satanic Temple paid for the display by raising funds on its GoFundMe page (available here).  (Editor’s note: the webpage also contains a video of “Arbitrary Night (a Satanic holiday carol)” that can be viewed – apparently, the Temple’s take on “O Holy Night.”)

Baby Jesus ICE Nativity Scene. A couple in Austin Texas is causing a stir with its nativity scene of baby Jesus behind bars in an ICE detainment cage.  The couple described the reason for the display: “We are making a statement because during this holiday season no matter what country you live in no matter what your ethnicity is you should be with your family at this time and unfortunately our country in recent history has decided to separate families.”  Reportedly, the scene is intended to reflect Jesus’ story as a refugee.  A poster of parchment stands next to the cage and reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”  Last year, the couple had a display of President Trump as the Grinch leading a sled with gift boxes labeled “ACA,” “Bears Ears” “DACA,” and “Paris Climate Accord,” while standing next to Cindy Lou Who holding a sign reading “Vote 2018.”  More on the ICE detainment cage story here and the Grinch story here.

“Like they say in Christmas Vacation, we have 250,000 twinkling lights!” Those are the words of Arizona resident Lee Sepanek (a/k/a “Christmas Lee”), who is back with his home holiday display a year after the city of Phoenix turned the lights out on him.  For 30 years, people came far and wide to see the elaborate holiday display.  To offset the electrical costs of his high voltage display, Christmas Lee sold hot cocoa and treats.  Last year, Neighbors complained about the thousands of lights and countless visitors who visited Christmas Lee’s.  This prompted the city to notify Christmas Lee that he could not sell hot cocoa and treats due to a regulation concerning the sale of food and drinks from mobile vendors in neighborhoods.  This caused Christmas Lee to turn out his lights and post a sign: “The City of Phoenix is the reason our Christmas lights are dark this year.  For decades we have celebrated Christmas together with a light display like few others.  But now the City has told me I can’t share my lights with you like I have done in the past.  They also say I can’t sell or even give away hot cocoa to your kids.  We are sorry that there are no lights (or cocoa) this year.  If you want to help us get the lights back on next year, contact the City of Phoenix and let Mayor Stanton know that you still believe in Christmas!”  According to a city attorney, “The City does not regulate Christmas lights displayed on homes.  It never has.  But since [Christmas Lee’s] display attracts so many visitors, it would be considerate for him to take into account how the display affects the neighbors.”  Now, reportedly holding the necessary permits to sell hot cocoa, the lights are back on.  You can view the display and Christmas Lee here.  (Editor’s note: Christmas Lee is the one wearing a red Christmas sweater with a cat tangled in Christmas lights and a Frosty the Snowman hat).

Whatever your beliefs or non-beliefs, we hope you enjoy this post.


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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.