Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Holiday Decorating and the US Constitution

It's once again the time of year for holiday decorations to go up. I know here in my home town, I get to watch the Christmas banners go up on the light posts, the Christmas tree and Hanukkiah get planted on the library lawn, and the fire department run its annual Christmas parade with all the decorated trucks driving through town. And it all looks beautiful, colorful, festive.

But each year, I question the use of my tax dollars in this way. And each year I write a letter to my local town board asking why my tax dollars are being spent in this manner.

This morning I drove my daughter to her middle school, and as I watched her open the school door, I noticed that there was a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the school lobby. I later told Ali I was going to write to the principal asking for the removal of these religious icons. Ali's response was, first to tell me there was also a Hannukiah. And next to tell me she would "die" if I did that. (She is 12, afterall, an age which has the unique ability to cause death by embarrassment fairly easily.)

I think somewhere along the line, we started to believe that, as long as "all religions are represented" then it's okay to have religious items in a school, post office, library, or other government building. So I want us all to think about a few things.

First, how can all religions be represented in this country? We have people who celebrate Christmas and those who celebrate Chanukah. But we also have people who celebrate Eide or those who do not celebrate any holiday at all. (Wikipedia actually shows statistics stating that, in 2001, we had 26 religions represented with over 15% having no religion.) How do we possibly represent everyone?

Second, and more importantly (although not to my daughter who thinks as long as I don't complain to the principal it really doesn't matter what is put up in the school), our United States Constitution guarantees us freedom of religion. As is says in the first amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Hmmm..an establishment of religion...putting a religious icon in a public building comes awfully close to the start of establishing a religion. And prohibiting the free exercise thereof seems to get lost when people are encouraged, in a government building, to choose one religion simply because that is the only religion represented.

I tried to explain to my daughter that we should care simply because it is just one small step from having a Christmas tree in the lobby to including prayer during morning messages to .... well can you see the slippery slope I see us on? We live today in a country where religion plays a large part in how our government makes decisions. And 250 years ago, the men who wrote the laws that we still follow today tried to prevent this from happening.

As we expand our world to include a more global view, we must hold fast to ideals that allow us freedom to believe however we choose to believe and allow our neighbors to do the same, even if their beliefs are very different from ours. We must remain open to all kinds of people with all kinds of religions, including no religion at all.

So Christmas at home with family? What a fabulous idea! Christmas in the mall? Sure. My tax dollars don't go towards the decorations. But Christmas in my public school? Absolutely not! Let freedom ring!


mrichme said...


Some might say that you're a "holiday grump" you bring up some good points. Religion in public areas is definitely a slippery slope and unfortunately society has blurred the line thanks to commercialization.

Instead of saying happy holidays I wish you calm and happiness in the coming days away from school.

Adam said...

Hi Lisa
I think you'll find that the christmas tree, although adopted as a christian symbol actually originated as a pagan fertility symbol and was used by the christian church to try to convert pagans.
For myself I detest the over commercialisation of christmas and the fact that as soon as hallowe'en has finished everything in the supermarkets is geared up for christmas, but I do love a nicely decorated tree, which despite any religious connections can brighten up a place. Maybe that is why one has been placed in your daughter's school.

A. Mercer said...

Lisa, Scott McLeod (professor of administration and JD) has a post on just this issue: http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2007/12/observing-relig.html

One of his links is to a discussion about this subject among admin types. You might want to post your thoughts there?