A new flank has opened in the “war on Christmas” with a controversy that involves the U.S. Postal Service, Russia and the family who owns the Kansas City Chiefs.
It started when Clark Hunt, chairman and CEO of the Chiefs as well as a founding investor in Major League Soccer, and his family went to the World Cup in Russia.
While visiting Moscow’s Red Square this summer, they took a family portrait in front of the iconic St. Basil’s cathedral while holding a banner that read “Chiefs Kingdom.”
Hunt’s wife, Tavia Hunt, thought the photo would make a great customized stamp for the family’s Christmas cards. The Postal Service now allows certain qualifying vendors to offer that personal touch on legitimate first class stamps.
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But there are certain rules, as spelled out in the Federal Register. Customized stamps may not depict, for example, alcohol or firearms or illegal drugs. They also may not depict “political, religious, violent or sexual content.”
Tavia Hunt placed her order on Nov. 28 with a vendor called Zazzle, to be fulfilled through stamps.com. She was surprised to hear back a few days later that her family image had been rejected because of its “religious” content.
Hunt eventually contacted First Liberty Institute, which describes itself as “the largest nonprofit legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans.”
“The order was canceled due to the prominence of St. Basil’s cathedral on[sic] the background,” Zazzle told Hunt, according to First Liberty. “Due to the new rules on religious images from the USPS, we could not pass the image as provided.”
The institute quoted Tavia Hunt: “All I wanted was to add something personal to my family’s Christmas cards. I was shocked that a family photo that includes a historic cathedral in the background is considered too religious by the Post Office.”
St. Basil’s cathedral was secularized long ago. It is now a museum with one service a year and is part of the Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ban on religious content only applies to customized stamps and not regular Postal Service stamps. You can buy a nativity scene first-class stamp or stamps with menorahs or other religious content at the post office or online.
On Thursday, general counsel Hiram Sasser of First Liberty sent a letter of objection to Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan. He described the Hunts as “devoted Christians who wish to share their religious identity with others via customized postage stamps during the Christmas season.”
Sasser said Hunt and the vendors had gone back and forth on ways to get around the religious content rule, such as by cropping the image to make the cathedral “not obvious,” which would have defeated the point.
By the time Stamps.com eventually agreed to a permissible version, Zazzle stopped offering any customized stamps “due to the onerous USPS regulations,” Sasser wrote.
The attorney informed the Postal Service that if it determines that Hunts’ image was properly rejected under its regulations then those regulations are overly broad and “raise serious First Amendment concerns.”
In a press release Friday, First Liberty said those concerns may require legal action.
“No one should have to go to court to send a Christmas card,” Sasser said in the release.
Aware of the brewing controversy, the Postal Service put out a statement Friday that summarized the situation but did not address the First Amendment issue:
“After receiving public comment, the U.S. Postal Service put new Customized Postage regulations into effect on May 15, 2018. The new regulations clarify that Customized Postage products differ from official U.S. stamps issued by the Postal Service. Customized Postage product regulations in their current form are available here. These regulations exclude any depiction of religious content from images that are eligible for use with Customized Postage products. Official U.S. stamps and philatelic products issued by the Postal Service are not subject to these regulations. Specific questions about individual purchases should be directed to an authorized provider of Customized Postage products. Official U.S. holiday stamps available for sale can be viewed here.”
“My apologies to everyone for a late Christmas card this year,” Tavia Hunt posted on Instagram Thursday afternoon. “If I can’t order this benign stamp because ‘all religious content is forbidden no matter the intent or faith,’ then ALL of our rights are being violated REGARDLESS of religion. This isn’t a left or right issue. It’s an issue for every American no matter who you are or what you believe.”