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The Annual Christmas Battle

It’s that time of year again. The time for Christmas trees and Christmas carols and manger scenes and stars and the three kings. It is also the time for peace, joy, and good will. Except when it comes to fighting about where you can or cannot display all the aforementioned. Then everyone takes up arms, turns into a Constitutional scholar, and argues about whether a nativity scene or other religious symbol of the season can be erected on public property and whether Christmas songs can be sung in public schools.

From a legal standpoint, the dispute revolves around the religious freedom clauses in the First Amendment. The problem is that those two clauses often seem in conflict. One bans an “establishment of religion,” while the other guaranties the free exercise of religion. In practice, people opposed to nativity scenes on the village green or the singing of “Silent Night’” in public schools say it violates the establishment clause, and those on the other side say that banning such practices prevents the free exercise of religion. So what is the solution? In the case of a clearly religious symbol like the baby Jesus in a crèche, or a clearly religious song like “Silent Night,” I think it comes down to the public or private property issue. What you display or sing on your front lawn or church property or private school property is up to you, the church, or the school. That is free exercise of religion. But what is done on property owned by the government is being authorized by the government, which is not allowed to establish religion.

Admittedly, interpretation of the First Amendment, like interpretation of many other parts of the Constitution, is subject to debate. What exactly does “establishment of religion” mean? What the framers of the Constitution very likely meant was making a particular religion the official religion of the country, like the Church of England. But is that all it can mean? Doesn’t the display of things specific to a particular religion on government property seem to give some sort of special governmental sanction to that religion? And does the phrase refer only to giving a special status to a particular religion, or does it also apply to giving special status to religion in general? And just how free can free exercise be? Does it guarantee the right to use otherwise illegal drugs in religious rituals? What if a religion prescribes human sacrifice? These questions raise thorny issues in many contexts, but let’s stick with Christmas. As I said before, I think I know the answer about clearly religious display practices on public property. But what about things that are traditionally associated with Christmas but are not particularly religious , like Christmas trees or sleighs full of presents or old guys wearing white beards and red suits? Or songs about snowmen or reindeer or bells that jingle? I am not sure that even I would have the heart to ban Santa Claus from a public park!

One reason why this whole subject is so complicated is that, although Christmas is a religious holy day, it is also a secular holiday. Some Christians complain about the secular part and some people decorate Christmas trees but think the religious part is hokum. But we are all stuck together on this sleigh ride, so lets try to show some good will and spread some cheer and treat one another like members of the same human race, even if not the same religion. And if we still have to debate the legal issues of the season, let’s do it with mutual respect and try to share the joy that both Jesus and Santa Claus represent on Christmas.

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