The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Menorah principle and the unravelling of public religiosity


The Board of Education Montgomery County, Maryland has cancelled all religious holidays. The move by the rather politically liberal county came in response to demands from Muslim groups to add Islamic holidays to the school calendar.

In an essay in 1n 1997, predicted the demise of conventional, innocuous Christian public observances as the obvious consequence of what I called the "Menorah Principle"—the notion that religious minorities must share equal, not pro rata, space with the majority religion makes public (i.e., governmental) religious symbolism effectively unworkable. In a nation with a multitude of religions followed by less than one percent of the population, giving everyone a turn will in the long run render public religious displays or any kind either meaningless, incoherent, or excessive. (Today, Buddhists (0.7%) Hindus (04.%) and New Agers (0.4%) make up a comparable share of the population to Moslems (0.6%).)

As I explained in an op-ed published in New York Post (July 1, 1997) entitled "The Gridlock to Come in Our Public Square":

Come December, the traditional Christmas tree displays that usher in the holiday season at New York City public schools will be joined not just by the Jewish menorah, but by the Muslim star and crescent as well. To settle a federal lawsuit, the Board of Education agreed that any holiday symbol in the schools should be accompanied by symbols of festivals from other religions and cultures to "reflect different beliefs."

The board avoided a First Amendment landmine by presuming the star and crescent to be secular symbol, as the US Supreme Court declared Christmas trees to be in 1989. But the settlement still has a major problem: America`s public square simply doesn`t have the room to give equal space to all the faiths in the world.
The implicit theory here is that religious equality gives each minority, no matter how small, a positive right to have its icons trotted out by Christians during their joyous—and harmless—observances. But the Muslims broke no new ground with their suit. They quite naturally sought the same privileges afforded the other religious minority, the Jews.

In 1906, thousands of Jewish students boycotted city schools, successfully demanding the abolition of mandatory Christian religious assemblies. Fair enough. But the demands did not stop with the end of majority coercion. Jews began to insist that the government elevate their religious symbols to the same public status as the Christian ones. Hence, the obligatory pairing of Christmas trees and menorahs, and, in many districts, an ecumenical vacation day on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In America, Christianity is different from other faiths in one salient respect. Christians are 84 percent [down to 78.4% in 2014!] of the population while the runners up [are less than 2 percent each].

For better or worse, the nation was founded by Protestants and built by Christians, who indelibly marked American culture with the trappings of their faith. It is hubris to somehow think that one`s tiny group is being shortchanged when the festivals receive less public recognition than those of the primary religion.

Call this demand for equal status the "Menorah Principle."… Once this principle triumphs, equity dictates that it must apply to all groups. The game plays out much like affirmative action, with its ever-growing list of preferred categories. Other groups, like the Muslims, inevitably piggy-back on the Jews` victories.

For example, in New Jersey`s Cherry Hill, a school district far less diverse than New York, the Christmas holiday displays are crowded with Christmas trees, menorahs, Kwanzaa candle holders and gold-laminated pictures of Buddha.

The list is sure to grow. Groups that at first don`t particularly care will eventually demand the same treatment as the others, if only to avoid being left behind when the rest are made "equal".
Given America`s vast diversity, the Menorah Principle is untenable, even destructive. Take holidays for starters. If Christmas is an official national holiday, then why not the twelve days of Kwanzaa and the month-long Muslim festival of Ramadan? Even the calendar year is a scarce resource: If we honor all the special claims of the diverse U.S. populace, the many holidays would leave little time left for work or school.

Unless society draws a line-and the only obvious place to draw it is at Christianity-an unmanageable tumult will ensue: gridlock in the public square.

Of course, if one opposes public religious displays of any kind, one might like whatever intensifies the internal contradictions, as Marx would say. I think the First Amendment allows for public religious displays, and a sense of proportion should counsel minority religions not to demand equal billing. The neutral principle needed to avoid this would of course sweep Jewish holidays from the public religious list, but this should not cause them distress. Jews who believe in equality should be happy to be treated similarly to other religions of similar size. And as the Montgomery decision augurs, Jewish holidays will surely be stricken anyway, as the Menorah Principle contains the seeds of its own undoing.