Friday, December 17, 2010

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Remember the cartoon based on Dr. Seuss's children's story about the mean-hearted Grinch who stole all the presents, food, and trees from the tiny village of Whoville?  His motivation for the theft was his disgust at the unabashed joy the Whos exhibited every year as they celebrated Christmas together as a town.

The 2010 version of the Grinch is the Federal Reserve. According to a news report by  television station KOCO last week the Federal Reserve completed its regular audit of Payne County bank in Oklahoma City and as part of that audit ordered that the small local bank remove it's Thomas Kinkaid paintings hanging in the bank's lobby.  Apparently some tellers had crosses and Bible verses posted at their stations; employees were also seen wearing "Merry Christmas" pins.  Auditors said that this is inappropriate, and all religious items should be removed.  Finally, the bank posted a Bible verse of the day on its Internet banking site, and the auditors ordered them to remove this also.

Payne County Bank has reportedly complied with all of these demands, but they are asking for clarification of the rules that the Federal Reserve cited in ordering the removal of the religious items, and they have also asked for help from the Oklahoma City Mortgage Banker's Association. They are asking those sympathetic to them to write to the head of the Kansas City Federal Reserve to ask them to reverse the decision.

Frankly, this is such an outrageous overstepping of government authority that it should be alarming to everyone, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.  Payne County Bank is a private bank--it is not a government entity.  While as a society we cite "separation of church and state" as grounds to keep endorsement of religious practices out of the public arena, our country has long-valued freedom of expression and individual religious practice as a key cornerstone of our society.  Therefore, if the bank's management and owners want to have crosses and Bible verses in the lobby and on the company's website, that is their decision as a private business.  Likewise, tellers who wish to post Bible verses and crosses at their stations and to wear "Merry Christmas" pins are exercising their own freedom of religion. Since there are doubtless other banks in Oklahoma City where consumers who are offended by Payne County's pro-Christian decor can bank if they choose to, and obviously the bank has decided that it does not care if the lack of political correctness costs them a few depositors, their choice in decorations is none of the government's business.

We all know that every company has a culture.  All companies promote the values that the ownership and executives hold dear.   Sometimes the values that the company is promoting are so offensive to a large block of consumers that the consumers will launch a boycott in order to change the company culture.  But that is a decision between the consumers and the business.  It is not the place of regulators to interfere with or try to change that culture.

This new attitude that regulators can tell private banks what jewelry their employees can wear, what decor they can display, and what message they can promote is going to have far reaching consequences.  I wonder if the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will order the decorative crosses given to me over the years by many different friends and family members removed from my building.  And it may not stop there.  Hobby Lobby--the home decor store--closes on Sundays and plays Christian music in the store as a reflection of the owner's desire to promote Christianity.  Will some supervisory authority order them to change the radio station and to staff the place on Sundays?  Chick-Fil-A recently did a promotion with contemporary Christian artist Michael W. Smith for his new CD "Wonder".  Smith autographed CDs at the Dallas Chick-Fil-A for any customers who wanted them.  (My nine year old niece stood in line to get her picture taken with him and get an autographed CD.  I think it was one of the high points of her life!)  Will we see a day when the FDA rules that such promotions are "inappropriate" even though they have nothing whatsoever to do with food safety?

The Grinch would be proud--he was able to steal Christmas from just one tiny town.  What the Federal Reserve has done could ultimately steal Christmas from all of us.

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