Skip to comments.(Christmas & Holiday) Decoration debate: Vague laws put municipalities in awkward position
Posted on 01/12/2009 6:56:49 PM PST by Coleus
Nativity scenes made of real straw. Wise Men 2 feet tall. Menorahs bigger than a human being.
In many North Jersey municipalities, those sacred symbols can be found at the same place people get dog licenses, pay taxes and apply for building permits town hall. The display of religious items on public property has long been a charged discussion in American communities, and the case law governing holiday displays is still murky enough to confound local governments trying to create a festive atmosphere for residents.
* Fair Lawn for years just lit a holiday tree. But in 2006 that changed when residents asked for a menorah.
* Lodi, a community with many Italian-American and Hispanic Catholics, has a sign wishing residents Season's Greetings, a lighted tree and a sled-and-reindeer team made of lights.
* Paterson has a holiday tree at City Hall but does not decorate it with religious items.
* In Closter, officials dealt with protesting residents this year, fearful that holiday decorations would disappear altogether after debates in recent years about allowing a menorah-lighting ceremony on borough property.
"It seemed quite clear that the majority of the residents were enthusiastic about holiday decorations," said Mayor Sophie Heymann. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2005 found that 83 percent of Americans thought Christmas symbols, including Nativity scenes, should be allowed on public property. Only 44 percent, however, approved of Christmas symbols displayed without corresponding menorahs, Kwanzaa decorations or other holiday adornments. Heymann said she believes strongly in the separation of church and state but also in the council's duty to do the bidding of the public, provided the requests are legal. A series of confusing court rulings have made it difficult for towns to translate the law into lights.
"It's a complex issue, and it's incendiary besides that," Heymann said. "The municipalities look to the courts for guidance, and the courts have not been providing that to the extent that we need it." Paterson Mayor Joey Torres said a multitude of religious views are represented in the annual holiday parade. "There was a concerted decision that we just put a holiday tree and presents and ornaments," Torres said. "Santa Claus was at the parade. The African-American community did a float with Kwanzaa. We have Kwanzaa and Ramadan and the Three Kings (Day), so we just embody it all as a holiday."
The U.S. Supreme Court came to opposite conclusions in deciding two cases on the display of the Ten Commandments on public property in 2005, based largely on the specific contexts and histories of the two plaques. In 1999, a New Jersey appellate court allowed a holiday display in Jersey City that featured diverse religious and secular symbols after years of litigation. Deborah Kole, counsel to the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said there is no iron-clad rule for municipalities to follow, but that purely secular or diverse displays are safer bets. "It's very fact-specific," she said. "There's been some indication that if there's a whole bunch of things from different religions, that's helpful."
The principle is called the "three reindeer rule," a phrase coined after two Supreme Court rulings in the 1980s allowed religious displays that also featured secular symbols like reindeer and Santa Claus. Eric Rassbach, the director of national litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberties, a non-profit that has defended municipalities that put up religious holiday displays, said the rule aims to ensure that local governments celebrate diversity, rather than endorse a particular religion. "When you have, say, a Nativity scene or a menorah, you need to also include something that's considered secular like a reindeer or a snowman," Rassbach said. "It's sort of a visual disclaimer that says, this is just government honoring a number of different things."
Some municipalities don't want the responsibility of sorting out reindeer from religion. "We don't have anything with religious connotations," said Lodi Borough Manager Anthony Luna. "It's been that way for years, and it's fine. If it's not broke, let's not fix it." And municipal officials realize that if you are open to one religion, you must be open to all. "I think our attorney would definitely tell us that if some other group comes to us and says, 'We celebrate this time of year, and we want a display,' he would probably tell us we have to [allow] that," said Teaneck Mayor Kevie Feit.
The American Humanist Association, a national atheist organization, sponsored a series of controversial ads on public buses in the nation's capital this holiday season that read: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." Fred Edwords, the group's spokesman, said the association doesn't mind holiday displays, as long as members who wish to express a humanist point of view are allowed to do so. "Local governments do have the right to open a free speech zone," Edwords said. "Our point is you have to allow all the viewpoints in." Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, said the presence of religious symbols in secular environments were out of place.
"It's almost like there's a vicarious surrender of the holiday to the town square," Zierler said. "I'm a big believer in generic holiday decorations in public places, in the street or at town hall. I believe we have enough religious institutions, enough churches and synagogues, that each of us can place our own respective symbols on our own property." Others frown on attempts to neutralize the religious significance of the winter holidays. "Sometimes, I feel like we've tried to sanitize public life by removing religion from it under the guise of separation of church and state," said William Parnell, rector at Christ Church of Hackensack. "I do believe that religions inform our public life and that was religions in the plural. And because of that, I believe in a very visible and vocal religious presence in the public square."