`Holiday' trappings: Common sense works

December 17, 2006|By Liz F. Kay .. | Liz F. Kay ..,Sun staff

When a controversy erupted this month over "holiday" trees in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it seemed like an old argument about the use of public property for religious purposes at Christmas was back to bedevil politicians, religious leaders and harried travelers.

A rabbi threatened a lawsuit if airport officials failed to add an 8-foot menorah to the airport's holiday display and airport officials opted to take down the trees rather than face the legal challenge. But the dispute was quickly settled when the threat was withdrawn and the holiday trees went back up.

That rapid agreement reflects a truth that defies the contentious spirit of this age. For two decades or more public officials in most communities have been finding ways to provide season-appropriate decorations in public buildings through the December holidays without offending most religious sensibilities.

Evergreen prevails over the Nativity in municipal buildings, courts and schools - though scenes with the baby Jesus are generally allowed as long as Frosty the Snowman, reindeer or other secular objects hold court next to the Magi.

"It's not a fully resolved question, but it's very rare," says the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He describes holiday displays as generally being a "non-issue" in most parts of the country.

"The law is pretty clear - if a government puts up a religious display, it must contain other secular elements," Lynn says.

To be sure, the move over the years by government officials toward non-offensive, non-religious holiday displays hasn't pleased everyone. Last year, some conservative Christian groups started something of a backlash, expressing frustration that generic holiday greetings seem to be drowning out Christmas messages.

Yet the complaints are relatively few. For example, officials at the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport say they've heard nothing about the trees, poinsettias, fake snow and reindeer.

"The decorations and images in the airport terminal are broad, common, secular images of the season," says airport spokesman Jonathan Dean.

At the Maryland state office complex on Preston Street, a 20-foot-tall artificial tree is the main holiday display - much like at other state government buildings.

"Our buildings and grounds staff follow years of common-sense holiday season traditions of non-sectarian decorations," says Dave Humphrey, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, which administers most state buildings.

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, says he has not encountered any outcry regarding holiday decorations since coming to Baltimore, attributing the absence of protest to "the health of the community.

"There's a great deal of tolerance in Baltimore and understanding of other religions and traditions," Abramson says.

Baltimore's most prominent official holiday display - the lighting of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon - intentionally avoids anything remotely religious, says Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership.

But at City Hall, Christmas symbols are accompanied by displays for both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. "We make it so that it's as inclusive as possible of the population of Baltimore," says Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley.

At Seattle-Tacoma International, the rabbi and airport officials agreed to meet after the holidays to plan changes for 2007.

Though Christmas trees are often seen as secular, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch and director of the National Menorah Council, says that menorahs - a symbol of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah - should be a part of public holiday displays. Lubavitchers, who make up one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, are known for reaching out to non-practicing Jews.

"To me, I don't need the euphemisms. I can deal with the fact that people who celebrate Christmas want to do so publicly," he says. "America is not a Christian nation but a nation made up predominantly of Christians. We need to respect their exercise of religious freedom but not at the expense of the exercise of our own."

Shemtov says the matter was more a concern about presence, not inclusion. He points to the national Menorah lighting scheduled for Sunday near the White House - not far from the national Christmas tree.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that governments would avoid the appearance of endorsing a particular religion by including secular symbols along with any faith's symbols in a holiday display, says University of Baltimore School of Law professor Michael I. Meyerson.

In 1984, a divided court allowed a Nativity scene in Pawtucket, R.I., because other secular decorations were presented as well. Justices opposed a cr?che in a courthouse five years later but supported the display of a menorah alongside a Christmas tree.

"The Supreme Court's confusing rulings create the framework for there to be more religious disputes," Meyerson said. "This comes up frequently but at the same time, communities sort of decide they'll be inclusive."

"I get the sense that people are trying to work with community members to try to solve disputes before they're litigated," says Erik Owens, assistant director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "The problem comes when people refuse to be multicultural."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

Tell us what you think about holiday decorations in public places, at baltimoresun.com/decorations.

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