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Legal bah humbug (Scripps Howard News Service) December 16, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like…”

Wait, don’t say it. In fact, in many schools, you’d better not sing it, either. In the South Orange/Maplewood School District in New Jersey, you can’t even play the instrumental version, with the words.

Why? Because “Christmas” is now deemed offensive to some and the defenders of our liberties are hard at work seeking to limit its use. The people who brought you a ban on the Ten Commandments in public places and a court decision seeking to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance have set their sights on Christmas.

But, alas, is Christmas a religious holiday, or a secular one? That was the struggle one federal judge in Rhode Island recently undertook in considering a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union to Cranston, Rhode Island’s public holiday display.

Cranston allowed its citizens to set up holiday displays on city property last year, with some providing religious scenes and others secular decorations. The ACLU claimed that the religious displays on public property violated the separation of church and state.

Of course the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, so the legal question was whether such a display violates the establishment clause of the Constitution, prohibiting Congress — courts later included all government entities — from acting in such a way as to “establish” religion. Courts have long held that this requires a showing of a religious purpose on the part of the government.

Fortunately this federal judge was not from the Bah Humbug Ninth Circuit in California and, as a commonsense Rhode Island jurist, he found the Christmas displays permissible. “The fact is,” the judge wrote, “that Christmas is a holiday with both religious and secular overtones.” As a consequence, the city of Cranston had a valid secular purpose in hosting a diversity of displays for the holidays.

Such diversity was not welcome in Denver’s annual Parade of Lights last weekend. There a Christian group was not allowed to enter a float with a “Merry Christmas” message or carolers singing Christmas hymns. A spokesperson said they did not allow religious themes since these could be “construed as disrespectful to other people.” This might make more sense had the organizers — Denver Civic Ventures — not included an American Indian salute to “holy people,” and floats celebrating German culture and the Chinese New Year in the parade.

As the holiday season approaches, is there truly no room in the inn of public life for traditional carols or an explicit Christmas celebration? Must we throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater of church and state? Only very flawed thinking, and a lack of courage by our leaders, would lead us in that direction.

To live, as we do, in a diverse society, requires respecting various religions, not discriminating against them. If there is room for Native American “holy men,” there is a place for Christmas. Religion may have a seat at the table of American public life, though it may not, under the Constitution, run the table. While we celebrate diversity and pluralism, Christianity need not and should not be excluded.

Neither the Constitution nor good sence requires us to erase our history, either. Imaging moving to Italy and objecting to a Catholic holiday, or to Iraq and seeking to eliminate Muslim celebrations in public places. All the lawsuits in the world will not blot out the fact that Christianity played a key role in developing our culture and society and that may still be celebrated without violating any law or anyone’s conscience.

Finally, protection of minority rights does not require the suppression of majority rights. The argument in Cranston, R.I., was not that a crèche prevented someone who is not in Denver was not a problem because it kept others from having floats with their own holiday message. The actions by the ACLU and others are aimed not at protecting minority rights but at suppressing the same rights held by the majority. That isn’t the law.

So have yourself a merry little Christmas. (This column void where prohibited by law.)

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