Display of Arrogance


After taking two cracks at it in recent years, the Supreme Court has yet to resolve the issue of government-sponsored religious displays. In fact, the two decisions were so inconclusive that the Court may hear yet another such case during the term that begins October 2.

The Court's approach invites continued controversy because it offers no coherent principle for judging the propriety of state action. In 1984, the Court found that a nativity scene displayed by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in a privately owned park did not run afoul of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. This year, the justices decided that a crèche inside the Allegheny County (Pa.) Courthouse did violate the separation of church and state. At the same time, they approved the display of a large Chanukah menorah in front of the City-County Building a block away.

On the surface, the distinctions at work here are difficult to understand. Upon closer analysis, however, they are impossible to fathom.

Crucial to the Court's argument, which draws on the well-known Santa Clause, is the notion that certain religious symbols are not religious symbols, while others are—at least, under certain circumstances. Thus, the crèche in Pawtucket, while undeniably religious in and of itself, was rendered acceptable by the presence of "secular symbols" such as a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus house. The Pittsburgh crèche, on the other hand, occupied a prominent place on the grand staircase of the county courthouse and was not accompanied by any neutralizing objects. The menorah, by contrast, was juxtaposed with a Christmas tree, which acted like a giant air freshener, soaking up all the religious vapors in the neighborhood.

Justice Blackmun, author of the majority opinion in the Allegheny County case, explains the phenomenon this way: "The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol. Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas. Numerous Americans place Christmas trees in their homes without subscribing to Christian religious beliefs.…The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas holiday season serves to emphasize the secular component of the message communicated by other elements of an accompanying holiday display."

To a non-Christian, this sort of talk is baffling. Christmas is, after all, a religious holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, whom his followers believe to be the Messiah and the Son of God. Any symbol of Christmas is, by definition, a religious symbol. The fact that some people celebrate Christmas without accepting its theological basis does not make the holiday, or its symbols, secular.

One suspects that what the justices really mean is that everybody, more or less, celebrates Christmas, so what's the big deal? It is, perhaps, natural for members of a majority group to conceive of their customs as universal. This assumption is apparent, for example, in the Court's repeated references to "the winter-holiday season." As Justice Brennan recognized in his partial dissent, it is only the Christians who have a "winter-holiday season." Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday, publicly recognized merely because of its proximity to Christmas. Attempts to appease critics of government-supported Christmas displays by adding Chanukah symbols make a mockery of the Jewish calendar, while ignoring every other religious (and nonreligious) group.

It is precisely this sort of arrogance that the Establishment Clause was meant to keep in check. Scrupulous government neutrality in matters of religion would not only prevent the use of state power to promote one belief system over another, it would also avoid a lot of silly legal reasoning.