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No Room for Nativity Story in Chicago Plaza

By Dennis Byrne

Right on schedule, just before Christmas, a new movie about Christ--the Nativity Story--already has offended, before it's shown.

And for the offense it is expected to cause non-Christians to suffer, the city of Chicago has driven it out of a public plaza in the heart of downtown.

Actually, it's not even the film itself; it's just some video clips promoting the movie, being played during Christkindlmarket, a festival celebrating the birth of the Christ Child that's been held on the Daley Plaza in the city-county government plaza for 10 years.

At first, a city official explained it didn't want the clips shown because it would be "insensitive to the many people of different faiths" who attend the festival or walk through the popular plaza, which is known for its enigmatic Picasso sculpture.

When an uproar developed overnight, the city changed its tune, a sign that the botched public relations have been taken over by the lawyers. Now, they say it's not because it offends, but because it violates some guidelines against any "blatant commercial message." The explanation was about as convincing as most lawyers' explanations, because if commercial messages aren't allowed, then why does the city allow Christkindlmarket to be sponsored by the German American Chamber of Commerce, Hard Rock Hotel, Mercedes-Benz and Lufthansa? Well, the city responded, the other commercial voices are more "muted."

Meaning, I suppose, that it's all right to be religious in a public place, as long as you're muted.

Frankly, the first, unguarded explanation is the more credible one. In a climate of raging sensitivity, some public officials actually believe that you can't express yourself in a public arena--especially when it is religious expression--if it offends. Which leaves us with a conundrum: What if your being offended causes me to be offended? Are you to shut up about being offended? Am I supposed to shut up about being offended by your being offended?

This could lead to an endless spiral of people being offended, like mirrors facing each other.

Controversy over what religious symbols can be displayed isn't new to the plaza, named for the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. A previous contentious fight resulted in a decision to allow the "private" display of a crèche, a Jewish menorah and a Muslim crescent.

Now, passions have been rekindled, and people from both sides have been--as they say--deeply offended. So, what happens when I'm offended because you're offended that I'm offended? Which one of us is supposed to shut up first? Like mirrors facing each other, does this go on endlessly? The answer, of course, is to junk the entire idea that "causing offense" is an acceptable standard for what expression and speech is permitted.

Unless, of course, this idea offends someone.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist. dennis@dennisbyrne.net.

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