Metro Views: The 'three reindeer rule'

Adding Santa and Frosty the Snowman can make it all kosher.

tree 63 (photo credit: )
tree 63
(photo credit: )
December is the bitterest month in the US - marked by annual culture wars. This is the month of conflict and confusion over religious symbols in the public square and hurt feelings over holiday greetings. Much of the cultural clash began some 20 years ago, when Chabad started to erect hanukkiot menoras on public property in American cities. In the US, the government is barred from endorsing or interfering with religion. Christmas trees had been seasonal fixtures for decades, in both commercial and government properties. Menora supporters argued that if Christians had a tree on public property, Jews were entitled to their symbol, too, or it would appear that government favored one faith over another. From this point, things became complicated or farcical, depending on your view. Courts were asked to decide what symbols were permissible in which public spaces, including when a menora is a religious symbol or a secular one. However, when trees and Hanukka menoras stood side by side, some Christians argued it was not fair: the menora is a religious symbol, the tree is not. Although Christians are the majority in the US, many feel there has been an assault on their beliefs. Take the standard holiday greeting. Some major retailers, fearful of offending some customers, advertise "holiday" gifts and instruct staff to wish customers a "happy holiday," instead of "Merry Christmas." To counter this, the Liberty Counsel, a legal center affiliated with the Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Virginia, each year compiles a "naughty & nice" list that "catalogs retailers who either censor or recognize Christmas." The idea is that if commerce profits from Christmas sales, it should acknowledge the holiday. In Rockland County, NY, a chapter of Catholic Daughters, an educational and charitable organization, is selling buttons that say: "It's OK to say Merry Christmas to me." The proceeds - tens of thousands of dollars - go to food banks that supply donated foods to the needy. Hanukka is the most public Jewish holiday in the US. It often is treated as the Jewish Christmas, which in this case means a commercial extravaganza of gifts for eight nights. Although Hanukka is a minor religious holiday, "for the purposes of religious identity, it is major," said Rabbi Steven Kane, leader of a Conservative synagogue in Briarcliff Manor, NY. That is borne out by the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. The poll found that 72 percent of American Jews light Hanukka candles, 67 percent participate in a Pesach seder, and 59 percent fast on Yom Kippur. But it is hard to gauge Jewish sentiment about the menoras on public space. In most non-haredi communities in the metropolitan area, attendance is sparse at public candle-lightings. Mainstream Jewish groups traditionally oppose the hanukkiot on government property, seeking a strict separation of "church and state." BY NOW, though, displays have become seasonal fixtures. Many Christians say that if the site has a menora, there should be a Christian religious symbol. As Christmas commemorated the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, that means a crèche. The village of Briarcliff Manor, in Westchester County, in 2005 began placing a hanukkia with its Christmas tree. A local Catholic resident thought that tilted the balance of the public holiday display. When the village declined his offer to donate a crèche, he sued. Last year, a federal judge agreed that the display amounted to an endorsement of Judaism. The village was told to remove the menora or add the crèche. Instead, the village removed everything. This year, Teaneck, NJ, added a crèche to its display of a tree and menora on the town green. But the town council had been divided. A minority wanted to deny the crèche as well as reject the menora, which was donated by Lubavitch in 1989. The Orthodox mayor, however, supported the nativity scene. "This is a diverse town," said Mayor Elie Y. Katz. "If we can get a diverse, all-inclusive display and try to represent as many religions as we can in the community, I think that is a positive thing." The result is a collection of holiday decorations adjacent to the municipal building: a crèche, a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, snowmen and a menora. A crèche or a menora standing alone would violate the law, but adding Santa, Frosty the Snowman, a sleigh, candy canes and reindeer make the display acceptable under the law. This is what the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, calls the "Three Reindeer Rule" in which public displays of religious symbols are permitted when the hodgepodge of decorations makes it clear that the government is not endorsing a religion. If the holiday display is somewhat silly in appearance - the seasonal equivalent of mixing apples and oranges - it is also serious in effect because it may trivialize religious symbols to make them acceptable for public display. "THE QUESTION is how to symbolize religious holidays with secular symbols. To some, a Christmas tree is not a secular symbol," said Kane, the rabbi of Congregation Sons of Israel, the only synagogue in Briarcliff Manor. "For others, a menora, basically used in a religious ceremony, can become a secular symbol." In some cases, governments take the path of least expense or least resistance. In Closter, a town near Teaneck, local officials agreed to continue menora-lighting on public property in part because they feared the expense of fighting a lawsuit if they barred the event. In Chester County, Pennsylvania, anything goes. Chester allows all community groups to erect a winter holiday display. This year, an organization of atheists - the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia - will have a "Tree of Knowledge" near a crèche and Chabad menora. The Chester Chamber of Commerce also will have a tree, which it called "a commercial attraction." Nearly 20 years ago, a Supreme Court ruling in a Pittsburgh case allowed a Chabad menora and a Christmas tree by stripping them of religious meaning. The court said that "both Christmas and Hanukka are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society." This year, Briarcliff Manor will celebrate that secular status in its public park. Having rejected a crèche and lost its menora, the village decided to pair its 25-foot-tall tree with a 6-foot-tall dreidel.