The Secular Perversion of Religious Symbolism

Douglas E. Mirell, an attorney in private practice, is a regional vice president of the American Jewish Congress.

In Southern California one of the surest signs that the holiday season is on us is the renewal of the annual battle over the display of religious symbols on public property.

On Dec. 6 the American Civil Liberties Union won a court order prohibiting the display of a lighted menorah in the rotunda of Los Angeles City Hall. Exactly one week later the ACLU obtained a second court order to remove a Nativity scene from the Downey City Hall.

The American Jewish Congress joined with the ACLU in opposing both displays. To many non-Jews, the notion of a major national organization of American Jews opposing the display of a creche on public property was not surprising. What may have surprised some in the non-Jewish community, however, was that this same organization was equally forceful in denouncing government involvement in the display of a menorah, the religiously symbolic embodiment of the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

Within the mainstream Jewish community, however, this view is both easily understood and widely shared. The reasons are simple and compelling. As a minority community within a pluralistic American society, Jews are uniquely aware that as a practical matter they will ultimately lose any battle to divert the power, prestige and resources of the state to the celebration of Hanukkah to the exclusion of the now-secular, legal holiday of Christmas.

Moreover, Jews are aware that they are not alone among religious minorities in America. Accordingly, official acknowledgment of Jewish holidays must inevitably lead to the state-supported celebration of all religious festivals, including those of Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Coptics, Universalists, Unitarians and even Scientologists. It also means equal state support for non-religion, including groups of agnostics and atheists.

There are some within the Orthodox Jewish community who welcome this prospect as opening up a "free market" for religious expression. However, in the unanimous view of the American Jewish Congress and all other organizations making up the organized Jewish community in this country, the price for such a "free market" is unacceptably high. That price is the secularization of an entire culture.

In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the inclusion of a municipally sponsored Nativity scene in a Pawtucket, R.I., shopping center as part of a larger display of reindeer, a Santa Claus house, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree and cut-out figures of a clown, an elephant and a teddy bear, together with hundreds of colored lights.

In their dissent to the Supreme Court's 5-4 Pawtucket decision, Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens wrote: "The impact of the court's decision is to encourage the use of the creche in a municipally sponsored display, a setting where Christians feel constrained in acknowledging its symbolic meaning and non-Christians feel alienated by its presence. Surely, this is a misuse of a sacred symbol."

Aware of the tenuousness of the Supreme Court's ruling and wary of the California Constitution's independent prohibition on "the use of any public funds to aid any religious or sectarian purpose," certain fundamentalist members of the Orthodox Jewish community--particularly those in the Chabad movement--now seek to deny the religious significance of the Hanukkah menorah.

They do so while simultaneously acknowledging that the menorah recalls the occurrence of a miracle whose commemoration is no less religiously symbolic than the Nativity scene's recollection of the birth of Jesus. They also seek to secularize a symbol whose very manner of construction, mode of lighting and placement are all regulated in detail by the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish religious laws.

Symbols, as the late Prof. Melville Nimmer noted in his treatise on freedom of speech, are entitled to "full and equal status" under the Constitution. Yet if symbols cease to hold any inherent meaning, they necessarily lose their ability to convey any message. It is scandalous that those who wish to display religious symbols on public property are willing to debase those very symbols for that privilege.

For many devout Christians, the secularization and commercialization of Christmas makes it increasingly difficult to keep "Christ in Christmas." For those of us in the Jewish community who wish to preserve our own cultural heritage and religious identity, the celebration of Hanukkah must remain free from the distorting, secularizing and politicizing influences of government involvement.

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