Civil Liberties

Christmas Tree Freedom

A symbolic struggle for the soul of America


'Tis the season to argue about Christmas trees, menorahs, nativity scenes, and the separation of church and state. Do the symbols and trappings of a religious holiday in public spaces, such as state universities, municipal park grounds, high schools, or City Hall displays, exclude and oppress citizens who do not belong to the majority religion? Or do restrictions on such displays sacrifice religious expression to sensitivity run amok? Are there Scrooges and Grinches out to steal Christmas, replacing it with a politically correct "holiday season" drained of all religious and cultural content? Is this part of a "war" by secularists against religion and Christianity in particular, as a series of recent reports on Fox News suggested?

My personal perspective on this issue is one of a Jewish agnostic who has Christmas decorations, including a tree, in her house. For my Russian ?migr? family, these are entirely nonreligious New Year's decorations, as they were in Russia when I was growing up. (Decades ago, the communist government co-opted these popular festive symbols for a secular New Year celebration; centuries earlier, of course, the church had incorporated many aspects of pagan winter celebrations into Christmas.) The Supreme Court, which doesn't have a Russian background, agrees: In a 1989 ruling, it held that the Christmas tree is a secular holiday symbol and that its public display—which had been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union—does not amount to government endorsement of Christianity.

I must admit that it makes me cringe when Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis removes a decorated Christmas tree from its atrium because some non-Christian faculty members found it "offensive" or when a firehouse in Glenview, Ill., is ordered to remove holiday decorations such as a Santa figure, a Christmas tree, and holiday lights. To tell the truth, even an overtly Christian nativity scene on public property doesn't cause me great alarm—at least as long as it is accompanied by secular displays, and as long as non-Christian religious holidays such as Hanukkah are acknowledged as well. Again, the Supreme Court is in agreement.

However, many government, university, and school officials are confused about what the law allows and what it requires. That's hardly surprising. It is often difficult to draw a clear line between secular celebrations and religious ones or to determine when the presence of religious expression in the public square rises to the level of "establishment of religion" by the government. Is it all right, for instance, for Christmas carols to be sung at concerts in public schools?

Others seek to go far beyond legal requirements in protecting the sensibilities of non-Christians. That includes private corporations such as department stores, including Macy's and Bloomingdale's, which have largely replaced the word "Christmas" with "holiday."

In a society where the overwhelming majority of people follow one religion (albeit with many different denominations), there will, inevitably, be tensions between protecting the rights of the minority and respecting the rights of the majority. It is almost certainly concern for minority rights, not any animus toward Christianity per se, that accounts for the fact that in many instances, Christmas decorations are treated as suspect while Hanukkah or Kwanzaa ones are not. Yet to deny religious expression to the majority is not only unfair but counterproductive: Instead of promoting greater respect for religious minorities, such measures may generate a backlash.

In the past few years, I have become somewhat more sympathetic to the crusaders for separation of church and state—mainly because there is indeed a troubling tendency today toward excessive entanglement of religion and politics. This is expressed less in specific policies, perhaps, than in a general sense that you have to be religious in order to hold public office, or even to be a good American. But this problem will not be solved by banning Christmas decorations.

It is worth noting, too, that the right's complaints of religious persecution against Christians in America are often ridiculously exaggerated—a conservative version of the victim mentality usually associated with left-wing political correctness. Take, for instance, the claim that to oppose a politician because he or she is against abortion rights amounts to religious bigotry.

Some conservatives are even denouncing the comedy Bad Santa, in which a lewd and crude con man poses as a shopping-mall Santa Claus (and is, of course, redeemed by the Christmas spirit at the end). To those who see this as an assault on religion, I can only say: Lighten up, folks. Then again, I'd say the same to those who see an assault on non-Christians in a Christmas tree or a Santa figure.