2004-12-24 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach


It never ceases to amaze me the topics that get the most play in Rockaway over the holiday season.

You would think the least of Rockaway’s (and, the nation’s as a whole) problems would be the way the season is treated in The Wave and elsewhere, but it seems, at least judging from the letters we get and the buzz around town, that the way the season is treated is the most important story in the world.

I guess, to some people, it is.

More than a few locals took the time to write The Wave, complaining that Jesus is not represented on Beach 116 Street alongside the Chamber’s Christmas Tree and the Rotary’s menorah.

Catherine Moran wrote to ask if the Chamber of Commerce “has cowered to the political correctness afflicting the current leaders of our community.”

Mary Dever-Kelly wrote to remind everybody to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” and to boycott those stores that trumpet holiday sales over Christmas sales.

Andrew Rohman decries the fact that The Wave said that “a holiday chorus” sang “holiday songs” at a recent event, rather than a “Christmas chorus” sang “Christmas Carols.” He says, “This has always been and will continue to be the Christmas season, so don’t be afraid to say so.”

Catherine and William Diffley were more direct. “What happened to Baby Jesus on Beach 116 Street,” they ask. “There is no more Christ in Christmas. There are menorahs in many places, but no mangers.”

As a secular Jew, I have always assumed that the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution restricted the placement of religious symbols on public property.

How about Christmas Trees and Menorahs, then?

Well, Christmas Trees are basically pagan, deriving from the Druid practice of bringing trees (which they worshiped as the place where their Gods lived) into the home. The Yule Log was an outgrowth of that practice, and the tree an extension of that.

So, to my mind, at least, the Christmas Tree is not really a religious symbol.

And, to my mind, neither is a Menorah, which represents a Jewish festival, not a holiday in the strict sense of the word.

On the other hand, to my mind, a crèche is a religious symbol, best left to placement outside of a church (as it is in many Rockaway venues).

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for the Washington Post whose work often appears in Newsday, does not agree with me, but he comes off in a recent column as a bit of a fascist.

“Mind you, I’ve got nothing against Hanukkah, although I am constantly amused – and gratified – by how American culture has gone out of its way to inflate the importance of Hanukkah, easily the least important of Judaism’s seven holidays, [making it] replete with cards, presents and public commemorations as a creative way to give Jews their Christmas equivalent.”

That’s really a disingenuous statement since the victory of the Macabee’s came long before the New Testament and one might logically say that Christmas was an attempt to find an equivalent of Hanukah.

In any case, the Establishment Clause is pretty clear, although some locals will never agree that it exists.

The courts, however, have a clearer picture of what the First Amendment means.

In 1971, the Supreme Court took up the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman. In the decision in that case, the court set up what is today called “The Lemon Test,” to decide if a public holiday display is Constitutional or not.

That test includes three elements: Whether or not the display has a secular purpose; whether or not the primary effect of the display advances or inhibits religion and whether the display “fosters an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Sounds easy? It is not. In fact, that case left more questions than it answered (as is often the case with the Supreme Court decisions).

Arguably the most important of the “Christmas” cases is Lynch v. Donnelly, which was decided in 1984. The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had set up a manger on public property, along with more secular statues such as Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. A large banner spreading over the entire area said “Happy Holidays.”

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the entire display was Constitutional, ruling that the crèche was owned by the city and that it “was merely a symbol of a traditional holiday and therefore no different from the secular symbols recognizing the holiday.”

In 1989, however, in the case of County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, the court ruled that a solitary crèche adorned with a Latin saying placed at a courthouse was in violation of the Constitution, but that a menorah and Christmas tree displayed outside a government building were not.

In rendering its decision, the court said that the crèche was “not diluted” with other secular symbols.”

This came to be called “The Plastic Reindeer Rule.”

Since 1989, there have been a number of cases that were decided by lower Federal courts but were refused a hearing by the Supreme Court and therefore, were allowed to stand.

The Third Circuit allowed a permanent injunction against Jersey City from putting a menorah and a crèche on public property.

That the city added a wooden sled, Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman to the display did nothing to impress the court. The court said that any religious display such as a crèche or a menorah on public property violates the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court, however, did not agree to rule on the lower court decision, allowing it to stand in the area covered by the Third Circuit.

Where does that leave Rockaway?

There is a movement afoot for the Rotary Club, which puts up the menorah (by default, when the Jewish War Veterans went out of business locally), and the Chamber of Commerce, which puts up the Christmas Tree, to sponsor a crèche as well.

Based on what I have read, the placement of a crèche alongside a menorah (which will come down shortly, because Hanukkah is over), and a tree is a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause unless the proverbial “plastic reindeer” or its equivalent is added as well.

I also have to question whether secular organizations such as Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, more concerned with local business and good works, should be fronting religious symbols in any case. Perhaps it is time for them to get out of the business altogether.

How about this idea as a Rockaway compromise?

The Knights of Columbus can put up a crèche, the Jewish War Veterans a menorah and the secular organizations a plastic reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.

After all, its the season to be jolly, not the season to violate the Constitution.

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