Last weekend NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg inadvertently created a mini-controversy when she said on Inside Washington: “I was at — forgive the expression – a Christmas party at the Department of Justice.” Some thought that Totenberg added “forgive the expression” as a cave to political correctness. But in fact Totenberg was actually mocking the Obama Justice Department. It was the DOJ that had officially called the event Totenberg attended a “holiday party” and Totenberg later told The Washington Post: “I think that’s kind of silly because it’s obviously a Christmas party. I was tweaking the Department of Justice. It was a touch of irony at the expense of the Justice Department, not at the expense of Christmas.”

So how did we get to the point that the Department of Justice can’t call a Christmas Party a Christmas Party? As part of The Heritage Foundation’s Understanding America series, Director of Domestic Policy Studies Jen Marshall explains:

Today, the religious roots of the American order and the role of religion in its continued success are poorly understood. One source of the confusion is the phrase “separation of church and state,” a phrase used by President Thomas Jefferson in a widely misunderstood letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802. Many think this means a radical separation of religion and politics. Some have gone so far as to suggest that religion should be entirely personal and private, kept out of public life and institutions like public schools.

That is incorrect: Jefferson wanted to protect states’ freedom of religion from federal government control and religious groups’ freedom to tend to their internal matters of faith and practice without government interference generally. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s phrase is probably more widely known than the actual text of the Constitution’s First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Far from banishing religious expression from the public sphere, the authors of the U.S Constitution intended the First Amendment to ensure that religious believers and institutions could freely engage in politics, policy-making, and helping form the public’s moral consensus. In fact, the American Founders considered religious engagement in shaping the public morality essential to ordered liberty and the success of their experiment in self-government. Marshall again from Why Does Religious Freedom Matter?:

Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the American experiment. That is because religious faith is not merely a matter of “toleration” but is understood to be the exercise of “inherent natural rights.” As George Washington once observed: “[T]he Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” And “what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator,” James Madison wrote in his 1786 Memorial and Remonstrance. “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

The model of religious liberty brilliantly designed by Madison and the other American Founders is central to the success of the American experiment. It is essential to America’s continued pursuit of the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence, the ordered liberty embodied in the Constitution, and peace and stability around the world.

So this holiday season, rest assured that there is no constitutional ban on keeping the “Christ” in “Christmas” or displaying manger scenes or menorahs. And if you find yourself at a “holiday” party, don’t be afraid to put on a smile and wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.” The Constitution protects your right to do so, and the Founders would have wanted it that way.

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