December 13, 2009

All, or Nothing At All.

Delray Beach has had a tradition of decorating Old School Square for the holidays, a display of lights, a Christmas Tree, and a Menorah.  But this year, it was missing the menorah that stood for the faith of its Jewish citizens.

According the the Palm Beach Post, Delray city commissioner Adam Frankel noticed it, and contacted City Manager David Harden. The response isn't what he expected:
Harden wrote that a temple had sponsored a menorah in past years but had not contacted the city this year. He also attached a 2006 legal opinion from a city attorney. And Harden added that the city's tree-only display "has kept us out of any litigation on the matter and has avoided Old School Square having to allow things on their grounds they would prefer not to have there."
You see, David Harden had read a Supreme Court decision that ruled that once a city puts up a religious display is legally obligated to let other religious symbols up, such as the Ku Klux Klan erecting a cross.
Having only a secular display, such as the tree, puts the city at less risk, Harden maintained.

"I have no personal objection to menorahs whatsoever," he said. "But Christmas displays have been the subject of litigation, and the city needs to be cautious about how it handles the issue."
To muddy up the situation, the Palm Beach Post talked to a lawyer who cited a Supreme Court decision, but the Post didn't follow up and read the actual decision:
One legal expert said Delray Beach can legally have a Christmas tree without a menorah. That's because the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that a Christmas tree is not a religious symbol, said David Barkey, Miami-based attorney for the Anti-Defamation League.
In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled, in the case of the County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, that putting up a Nativity was a violation because of the specific manner it was displayed:
 ...the creche sits on the Grand Staircase, the "main" and "most beautiful part" of the building that is the seat of county government. No viewer could reasonably think that it occupies this location without the support and approval of the government.

Thus, by permitting the display of the creche in this particular physical setting, the county sends an unmistakable message that it supports and promotes the Christian praise to God that is the creche's religious message... The Establishment Clause does not limit only the religious content of the government's own communications. It also prohibits the government's support and promotion of religious communications by religious organizations.
As for Christmas Trees, while it is correct that the the court decided that a Christmas tree "does not endorse a specific Christian belief,"  the same decision also ruled that the menorah display alongside of it was acceptable:
The Christmas tree alone in the Pittsburgh location does not endorse Christian belief; and, on the facts before us, the addition of the menorah "cannot fairly be understood to" result in the simultaneous endorsement of Christian and Jewish faiths. On the contrary, for purposes of the Establishment Clause, the city's overall display must be understood as conveying the city's secular recognition of different traditions for celebrating the winter-holiday season.
The court did not adequately address the issue of how a Christmas Tree, which was created expressly to celebrate Christianity, could at the same time be said not to endorse the religion which created it.  The tree is intrinsically Christian, even the NAME binds it to Christianity.  It's a "CHRIST'S MASS tree", not a "secular tradition of wanton consumerism tree". The decision is full of weaselly phrases and half-considered arguments; it is not one of the Court's better moments, although not as bad as Plessy vs. Ferguson.

Is Harden correct in his belief that allowing two religious displays might invite other religions to demand decorations in Old School Square?  Yes.  But while he uses the worst case scenario - a racist hate-group - he ignores the opportunity for the community to unite in recognition that we all hold the winter season to be a time of celebration.  Personally, I think that outweighs the possibility that a hate group might have to be allowed to participate, too.

But if one flatly rejects the notion that Christmas Trees somehow are not a symbol of Christian faith, then Harden's real options is either to allow everything, and respect the numerous faiths and practices that comprise our melting-pot nation, or to allow nothing at all.

I say 'go for the dazzle.'


  1. Of course the tree predates Christianity and is more indicative of the pagan solstice celebrations, but I don't imagine the Supreme Court dug that deeply. ;-)

  2. I actually didn't find any evidence of that as I researched, although I expected to. After all, Christmas certainly is an example of the early Catholic church's policy of co-opting some outside rituals in order to assimilate competing religions.
    But the earliest known reference to a decorated holiday tree is late 15th century Germany, long after Pagan Germany had been assimilated.

  3. I say they decorate the tree with menorahs and kinaras. And if anyone finds anything to bitch about the tree, you hang them from it. Not for religious reasons, just that they obviously didn't have much of a life anyhow.

  4. Oooh. And a Flying Spaghetti Monster on top.