Urban legends tend to take on the feel of facts when people hear things repeated often enough.
A caller reported a news tip last week about a Northeast Missouri school district that had a nativity scene on its property.
"It's obviously illegal," the woman said.
This lady did not sound irrational or agitated. She saw a nativity scene and thought its presence on a government-owned property violated the "separation of church and state" laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
One problem with that scenario is that the Constitution does not mention a separation of church and state. What the First Amendment says is that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."
So, what may appear obviously illegal to some, is not so clear-cut in courts of law. Congress is specifically prohibited from establishing one religion.
Those urban legend stories seldom focus on the fact that Congress is not allowed to prohibit the free exercise of religion.
While the First Amendment may most often be remembered as protecting freedom of religion, it also gets tied in with a phrase that appears nowhere in the Constitution or its amendments. Thomas Jefferson is often credited as the founding father who coined the term "separation of church and state," which has been mimicked by the U.S. Supreme Court on more than one occasion.
A quick online search for news about lawsuits involving nativity scenes does not find much that's recent or relevant. No Missouri lawsuits have occurred in recent years.
º One elementary school in Texas removed a nativity scene in 2012 in order to avoid any lawsuits. No court ruled that the display was illegal.
º A group of atheists and agnostics in 2007 filed suit to get a nativity scene taken down in Green Bay, Wis. That became a moot point when the display was removed.
º A California judge ruled in 2012 that a nativity scene could not be placed in a Santa Monica park, prompting a lawsuit by those who thought the display should be allowed.
In none of the cases is there a clear judicial ruling that a local governmental unit is violating anyone's civil rights.
The local tipster thought the school's nativity scene was a problem because no other religious symbol was present.
"Did anyone ask for something and get turned down?" I asked.
The lady did not know.
That's one of the problems with purely academic questions about law or politics -- until something is investigated fully, it's hard to make a strong case.
There are lots of other urban legends out there about the Constitution or federally guaranteed rights.
Those who say they have a "right" to own a home or a "right" to a certain type of health care are not going to find any constitutional wording to bolster their arguments. And don't get me started on people who want to quote the Declaration of Independence in claiming that the Constitution guarantees "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The best I can offer is a personal wish that you have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.