Deja vu Nativity wars

Another Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice season has come and gone, but the lawyers will be cleaning up for quite a while.

Things got rough on the church-state front. Pick a zip code.

Firefighters in Glenview, Ill., were ordered to take down their station's lights, tree and Santa when neighbors said they were offended.

A pastor in Chandler, Ariz., was grieved when the public library set up a display of readings about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but not Christmas. Instead of adding Christian books, as the pastor requested, the library staff removed the whole display.

The American Civil Liberties Union intervened in Tallahassee, Fla., when the Jewish Chabad offered to help county commissioners buy a 22-foot menorah for the courthouse yard. Both sides threatened lawsuits, until a shopping center offered to play host.

The conflict is now global. Leaders of the Abbey National Bank in England ordered the Upminster branch to remove an offensive Nativity scene from private property. Down under, the Anglican archbishop of Sidney, Australia, protested new bans on Christmas decorations in businesses and schools.

There were waves of similar cases.

But this drama would not be complete without an election dispute in Palm Beach, Fla., where protestors are trying to unseat council members who nixed a creche on public land, next to a holiday tree and a city-owned menorah. This gets complicated. Officials offered to allow a creche in a city park next to a menorah used in rites by the Orthodox Lubavitch Center. So there could be a Nativity scene next to the "religious" menorah in the park's display area, but no Nativity scene next to the "secular" menorah on a street median.

This week, the council voted to avoid the religious symbolism wars altogether.

"It's a mess," said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is involved in several Christmas cases. "The key ... is that a Christmas tree simply does not equal a menorah, because the courts have said that a Christmas tree has become a secular symbol while a menorah is a religious symbol.

"To put a more neutral spin on it, it's really clear that an evergreen holiday tree with totally secular decorations on it is not a Christian symbol."

Not all creche controversies are created equal. The most problematic involve government-owned and operated decorations on public land. In other cases, authorities may allow diverse collections of private religious decorations on public sites that are zones for free speech. With private groups, on private property, anything goes.

The case law is actually decades old, noted Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University. Nevertheless, many public and private leaders remain confused.

In a recent Pennsylvania case, a school's multicultural committee set up a display with a creche, a menorah and a Kwanzaa scene, she noted, writing for FindLaw's Legal Commentary. Although this display was almost certainly constitutional, a principal panicked and ordered only the creche removed.

The message in the original, diverse display, she noted, was "not one of endorsement for a particular religious viewpoint," but that government was "acknowledging the celebrations of its various citizens. And that is perfectly constitutional."

Meanwhile, there is no legal entitlement for citizens to demand that government acknowledge their particular faith, she noted. Civic leaders should try to offer equal access or do nothing. But if diverse decorations are allowed, then there "no constitutional right not to be exposed to the holidays, either," she noted. Some may be offended.

At times, the whole debate becomes a tornado of lawyers arguing about how many generic angels, non-liturgical stars and strings of secular twinkle lights beleaguered politicos must drape around religious symbols to make them safe for public consumption.

Enough is more than enough, said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"Why not just put Nativity scenes on the front lawns of every single church in town?", he asked. "Why do people think they need to get the government get involved, which shoves things into a constitutional zone where you have to start counting the number of reindeer and Santas around your Nativity scene so that everybody knows you're trying to be neutral?

"Why don't our churches just get together and handle this?"