Face-off: Christmas in public places

Face-off: Christmas in public places
A conservative view
from Zach Jarrell

Merry Christmas! That’s right. I said, “Merry Christmas.” I’m writing for a public school newspaper and I said, “Merry Christmas.”

Some people may find this offensive, but I really don’t care. I am a Christian, and I believe that as a Christian, I should be able to celebrate my holiday without worrying about offending those around me. The government should not be able to stop me from expressing myself. Even the governor of Rhode Island is now calling a Christmas tree a “Holiday tree.” I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a Kwanzaa or a Hanukah Tree, but if they exist, please tell me.

As it is now, Christmas has become very much of a secular holiday. Many things have been done that have caused the original meaning to be lost. For example, look at Santa. Where in the Christmas story of the Bible is Santa? Nowhere. He was added to the holiday much later.  I will concede the fact that he was based on Saint Nicholas, but in most people’s minds, Santa is now just a big guy in a red suit who brings gifts for good children.

Now I don’t mean to say Santa is the devil for invading the Christmas story, but he has caused many people to lose sight of what Christmas is. And even he has now been banned from Stockton, Calif., school district, along with poinsettias. What has a poinsettia ever done to anyone? It’s a flower.

Let’s also look at department stores. Christmas is when department stores make the most money. People go everywhere to buy things on everyone’s lists. And while people buy, buy, buy, the stores rake in the money. I’m a huge fan of capitalism and if people are willing to buy, let the stores make as much money as they want, but I don’t think they are remembering the true story behind Christmas. Christmas has begun to create more stress than happiness. So if Christmas is such a secular holiday now, why do people care when a government puts up a Christmas tree?

One of my other big beefs is when people get mad at the sight of a Nativity scene, and God forbid if the government puts one up. Cities and towns around the nation are now being forced to take down Nativity scenes due to only one complaint. In Santa Monica, Calif., the Nativity scene that has been a tradition for more than 60 years is drawing complaints from some atheists, who aren’t even residents, causing city officials to take it down.

In Henderson County, Texas, atheist groups are demanding that the government take down the Nativity scene in front of the courthouse. One person or group should not be able to dictate what the city does and does not do. If they really feel that strongly about it, then make a petition saying the government cannot put up a Nativity scene or anything else in reference to Christianity. If you have enough people on your side, then you can get the issue on the ballot and let the people vote. This is called democracy and it’s what our country is based on. We got rid of the rule of one more than 200 years ago.

And so you know I’m not one-sided, if the government puts up a menorah or a kinara, let them. I don’t care. The government is not telling me what to celebrate. They have not established a religion; therefore, they are still within the bounds of the First Amendment.

This brings me to the meat of the situation. The First Amendment in no way says that the government and the church cannot interact. All the First Amendment says is that the government cannot establish a public religion. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines establish as “to institute (as a law) permanently by enactment or agreement.” Nowhere is there a law saying people must worship the plastic Baby Jesus.

In fact, the government is actually prohibiting some people from practicing their religion.  Teachers in public schools are not allowed to pray. Some judges have been forced to take the Ten Commandments down from their courtrooms. Now tell me how that is religious freedom.

Our Founding Fathers would not be for this. “If ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free,” said our second president, John Adams. Signer of the Constitution and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson once said: “[L]aw, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same Divine source: it is the law of God … . Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine … . Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other.”

If there is no religion, where do we get morals? There is no such thing as a universal morality. Natural law is to do what gets you ahead. If that takes murder and theft, then there’s nothing stopping you. All morals come from religion; therefore, laws like those prohibiting murder and theft are coming from a religious standpoint. Our country is based on Christianity.  That’s the simple fact of the matter. The more we stray from our Judeo-Christian base, the more we stray from the original intent of our country. The less we incorporate religion into our laws, the less law we can actually have.

Incorporating religion into law is a requirement for a country to have a moral base. To say religion and politics are two separate things is pure and utter stupidity. They are one in the same. Laws are based on morals, and morals have to come from somewhere. There is no such thing as a universal morality. In the wise words of Stanley Hudson from The Office, “Christmas is Christmas is Christmas is Christmas. Just give me plain-old-Baby-Jesus-lying-in-a-manger Christmas.”

A liberal view
from Paqui Toscano

I go to church every Sunday. I sing the hymns every Sunday and pray every day. I have been confirmed and play Christian music as I get ready to come to school in the morning. I consider myself a devout Christian.

I also am a huge proponent of strict separation of church and state. My fellow Flyer writer, and other conservatives, would have you believe that these two things are mutually exclusive. I, however, vehemently disagree.

The concept of separation of church and state is tricky enough as it is, let alone when Christmas season comes around – what is “constitutional” and “unconstitutional” becomes even more complicated. In what ways can cities, school teachers, principals, presidents, mayors and other officials reference Christmas? What can be displayed? More importantly, what can’t? These are the questions that plague our society when it comes to Christmas.

My feeling: little reference to Christmas can be made by government officials.

Since I’m essentially talking about a debate regarding the separation of church and state, it would remiss to not at least mention the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Together, these two clauses read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These few words have been the cause of so much debate.

In the past, the Supreme Court has used the Establishment clause to strike down praying in public schools, the display of standalone statues of the Ten Commandments, and Nativity scenes with a clearly ecclesiastical message. I could not agree with their decisions more. Although strict constructionists may and do argue that the original intent of the framers was to prevent Congress from establishing a national religion, and thus, all other entanglements of church and state are completely constitutionally permissible, their logical fails to include basic common sense.

Teachers or principles who try to promote religion; judges who display the Ten Commandments in their Courtroom; crosses on government-owed property – what do conservatives think that this is doing?

It is by all accounts and purposes establishing a state-sanctioned religion. At the very least, this is clear promotion of a certain religion by the state. It is government action respecting a particular religion, thus, also trying to exert governmental influence on non-Christian citizens, in turn violating their right to practice their religion freely. Judges, government officials, teachers and principals who depend so much on religious texts are not following the rules of the school or Constitutional guidelines, which is one of the surest ways I know of fostering despotic command.

When it comes to Christmas, most “pious” conservative, Christians argue that because Christmas has become such a secularized holiday, that the normal rules governing separation of church and state don’t apply. To these people I ask, what happened to your faith? The word Christmas has “Christ” in it. How much more ecclesiastical can you get? To say that the word Christmas and celebration of Christmas doesn’t have religious value is a slam against Christianity.

With that being said, the next question is, how many references to Christianity can government officials or government employees, teachers, principals, mayors, presidents, judges, congressmen, and other state officials make? To start with, I say Christmas tree lightings with the mayor and Nativity scenes on government-owned property are definitely out.

To have a government-sponsored Christmas tree lighting is the very religious entanglement that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is trying to protect against. These are entanglements that can lead to state-sanctioned religions, if only unofficially. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t have a holiday tree lighting – that’s a perfectly acceptable secular version of the once inherently ecclesiastical in nature tradition. Those people who come that are Christian can assume that the tree before them is a Christmas tree – and since they’re Christian they can even call it that. Those in the audience who aren’t – well, they can just take in the moment and interpret the ceremony as a way to usher in the holiday season.

As far as Nativity scenes – they’re a definite no. No person in his right mind can argue that a Nativity scene can be interpreted as just a woman with a baby and a husband with some animals, and oh, what a pretty little display. It just simply doesn’t work like that. Nativity scenes, by their very nature, are religious. They depict a specific scene from the Bible and promote a very clearly ecclesiastical message. They must come down – there are no two ways about it.

Too often people ask, “Well, what if we put a menorah up, too?”

“Interesting question,” I reply, as I secretly think how that doesn’t solve anything. So now we have a menorah and a Nativity scene. It’s not an issue, necessarily, of what religions are included; it’s a matter of what religions are excluded. So if a Muslim comes up and wants to display a religious symbol, will the city also allow that? And a Hindu? And Buddhist? And a Sikh? Before you know it, the once-simple display is now a disorganized, fragmented display of random icons that no longer hold meaning. And of course you also have the atheists who don’t believe in anything – what do you do for them? If you really want to put something up, put Santa and his reindeer. I think that is secular enough, don’t you?

Within the school, things get even trickier. Holidaytrees in classrooms are OK; Santa is OK, without a doubt. (Who wants their classroom to not at least spread a little bit of the “holiday” joy?) Heck, if classes want to even put up something that says Merry Christmas, assuming that there are no Nativity scenes, I’m OK with that, too, since this specific classroom is a much more controlled setting than a public government square.

Here’s my rule of thumb – if you know people celebrate Christmas, say “Merry Christmas” to them. If you don’t, say “Happy Holidays.” In a way, people are getting too wrapped up in this whole idea of political correctness; on the other hand, it’s important in a civilized and accepting society to be cognizant of the fact that there are other religions besides yours out there. That’s why employees in stores should say “Happy Holidays,” unless the customer says to them first “Merry Christmas.” However, it’s important to note that store owners can tell their employees to say whatever they want – there are no Constitutional restrictions on non-government-owned property. The same applies for private citizens, teachers or government officials when they’re not at work – the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause reigns supreme then.

The issue of holiday concerts may also come up – these are not, in my opinion, a violation of the Establishment clause. Often very religious messages are present in the music we play at Fairmont; however, it’s important to note that these songs or musical pieces are not being played for their religious value; they’re being performed for their performance value. As long as the focus of the piece is on performance and not the ecclesiastical message that the piece may project, than by all means play on. (I could never support a Constitutional doctrine that doesn’t letFairmont perform holiday concerts.)

I want to make it very clear that I am not trying to be a Scrooge – I like Christmas just as much as the next person. And I certainly don’t want schools to become places that are immune to the inherent happiness of the holiday season. But I also am not willing to let government-regulated places become puppets to promote religion as well – that cannot happen in a democracy. Too often people say that to support separation of church and state is to not be a Christian. Don’t ever fall into this trap, though. Jesus said to evangelize; I don’t remember anything about forcing people into believing something in the Bible.

That being said, Happy Holidays (and Merry Christmas, if you’re Christian). Enjoy your break.