Christmas Trees & Menorahs: No place on Public Property

In 1990 and 1991, an atheist organization filed suit against cities and towns in Illinois, including Rolling Meadows, Zion and Palatine. It argued that a religious symbol in the official city seal constituted government recognition of a religion and caused harm. A city seal appears everywhere that official business is conducted. It is emblazoned on permits, forms, stationery, recycle bins, police cars, and even street signs.

At first, the towns fought back, arguing that a Latin cross in the corner of a city seal, an angel or a reference to God represents an aspect of town heritage and history. In fact, some towns were settled for religious reasons during colonial times. They also pointed out that US currency displays the words “In God We Trust” and that religious motifs are enshrined in government documents, buildings, history and even cited by our founding fathers.

Although decisions were split, the plaintiffs won their case on most counts and in most cities. Religious icons were stripped from the seals and eventually the court houses of many towns. Some civic leaders considered appealing the decisions, but after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the initial action, most towns gave up the fight and agreed to remove religious symbols.

How is it that a religious symbol can cause harm? For an atheist, I am a bit puzzled. To them, I would think that it should be no different than an artifact of fables and legend. But for people of other faiths, I certainly understand the problem. In one case that gained brief, national attention, the wife of a Rabbi covered the seal on her recycling bin and on an automobile windshield sticker. But this small act of protest had repercussions. The municipal government blocked her trash pickup and fined her for not displaying (or perhaps defacing) a required vehicle permit.

Before this post attracts all sorts of rants from the right, please consider this. Asking a devout Jew to display a crucifix in front of her home, even if it is small, is no different than asking a devout Muslim to wear a Star of David for the purpose of gaining access to the town dump. Preposterous! Even if the effect is unintended, the incorporation of religion into government – even if symbolic – is not harmless. It is intimidating, unfair and a form of bullying. It says that the town recognizes and serves this citizen, but not that one.

Some will argue that in a democracy, “Majority rules”. But this cliché is a bastardization of democracy. This type of thinking leads to Fascism. A true democracy protects the rights of individuals and never forces citizens into acts that benefit no one and isolate individuals. Rather, democracies actively protect diversity. For this reason, I stand with the Rabbi’s wife.

But let’s move forward 20 years. It is now Christmas 2011. Why, today, do most towns still decorate Christmas Trees on public property? I have no idea! Christians should be even more outraged than atheists and people of other faiths. Having government usurp a matter of family and personal faith is trite, insulting and nauseating. It is far worse than the commercial exploitation of faith that we see in malls and on television.

The issue is reaching a boiling point in the town of Evergreen Colorado, in which I have a friend. The town offered local Jews “equal access” by placing a giant menorah next to the town Christmas tree. The pendulum is swinging wildly this week. Early this week, newspapers reported Evergreen Bans Menorah, Keeps Christmas Tree, but just as abruptly, the two sides reached an accommodation. Now they are again saying “Let’s drape our court house in both faiths.”  If I were a local Jewish leader in Evergreen, I certainly wouldn’t want a symbol of a minor children’s holiday placed next to a Christmas tree. For God’s sake, get rid of both!

Do you really want equal time and equal space for Jewish symbols amongst Christian symbols?! Doesn’t that open a can of worms? What about Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto and Wicca? Does each minority get a symbol on the front lawn of City Hall?

Rather than “Equal Time” for flaunting Jewish holidays & symbols. I would much prefer that governments get out of the religion business altogether! It’s trite, bigoted and incredibly insulting. I have never understood why governments like to erect Christmas trees. I would rather teach my children that faith is expressed by the faithful and within their respective communities. Let us please end state funding or any state recognition of religious holidays & events. Let the tree to Christ go up on private property and let the Menorah go up on Mr. Levine’s front lawn or in front of Weinstein’s Deli (I made up the names, but you get the point).

Why not display a religious alphabet soup to assuage all residents?

What about the The Salvation Army? Projects of missionaries, and some self-help groups. Should they be granted meeting rooms in schools or donation pots at the post office? Of course not! Let them find donors in a church parking or at the entrance of Wal-Mart. (I am not arguing against retailers making their own decision). But wait? Is the Salvation Army a religious organization? Many people believe that their motives are as benign as the Girl Scouts. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems reasonable to ask what the “Salvation” Army is trying to save?!

Should there be exceptions to my rule?

Sure! Every restriction should accommodate facts on the ground and be applied within reason. Even though Hanukkah is a minor children’s holiday blown out of proportion because of proximity to Christmas,  I accept that our national holidays include Christmas, Easter and the Gregorian New Year (I won’t even call that last one ‘religious’). The plurality of Christians is a fact and it seems reasonable that major holidays convenience the largest group. Likewise, I appreciate the fact that towns with a large Jewish population (like Brookline and Sharon in Massachusetts) structure the school calendar to accommodate Passover and Yom Kippur. I wouldn’t demand that the holiday be recognized (not even locally), but on the other hand, I bet families in these towns appreciate that teachers accommodate individual students who cannot attend on those few days.

What about the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? Fortunately, the Girl Scouts are not religious at all (they are not affiliated with the Boy Scouts). However, the Boy Scouts credo and pledge includes an oath of anti-atheism, and of course, they tried hard to block gay scouts and leaders. Alas, this isn’t a perfect world. Personally, I overlook the subtle and non-pervasive remnants of intolerance and religion in the Boy Scouts as long as their regional outposts are inclusive and accommodating. Their record is mixed, but religion is certainly a very minor footnote in their activities.

I have no problem with a school giving after school meeting space to scouts, as long as the on-site affairs are completely nonreligious and as long as the donation of space and service is treated like any other non-profit (e.g. the Red Cross or a local food drive).

So Sayeth Ellery. Tell me what you think.

4 thoughts on “Christmas Trees & Menorahs: No place on Public Property

  1. I think the whole thing is ridiculous!!! Why not agree to disagree, honor all symbols, let the light and the lights shine, and get involved in more important things like feeding people who are hungry and keeping the homes of people with little to no incomes, elderly and at risk, warm!!! That’s what spirituality is really all about. I find the Unitarian Universalists have he right attitude about these things and they honor all the different religions and spiritual paths. Service is their chief holy obligation. Warm and loving Holiday wishes, Tasha

  2. Hi Kate,

    I am flattered that you still read the Duck. Your contributions to my thoughts on the death of cursive in elementary schools helped that article to be tied for the most popular posting of all time.

    That was a few years ago…Coincidentally, just this week, I came across your expert testimony in two separate cases, advising towns to refrain from restoring cursive to schools via legislative edict.

    Regarding your feedback on this new post…

    1. With a name like “Zion”, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that they have a history with religion. That’s an interesting historical footnote, but in my opinion, this doesn’t change anything. This is America and city documents and properties are a public resource. I take the separation of church and state very seriously.

    2. My daughter was in the Girl Scouts until last year. (She feels that she has outgrown the activities available in our area). Her troupe began each meeting with the Girl Scout Law, which does not invoke a deity.

    Based on the web page that you referred, I see that the “law” flows right after after the shorter Girl Scout Promise, which does mention God. I was unaware of this.

    But as noted in my original post, even our secular country mentions God on its currency and in many affairs of state, including sessions of our legislative bodies. I stand by my conclusion that the Girl Scouts are more benign and even agnostic in practice. They are inclusive and typically don’t bake God into many activities.

    It is a pleasure to hear from you again, Kate. I always respect and appreciate your insight. I hope to reconnect soon!


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