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Blurring the Line

Among the peoples of the developed world, only Americans profess and practice religious beliefs in large numbers. This singular situation may well derive from another unique attribute of the American system: the legal separation of church and state. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court needlessly blurred that crucial line of demarcation when it ruled Monday that government-sponsored religious displays are legally acceptable, as long as they do not have “the effect of promoting or endorsing religious beliefs.”

In the case at hand (County of Allegheny et al vs. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, et al), the court held that the City of Pittsburgh violated the First Amendment when it allowed a Catholic men’s group to install a creche inside a court house, but not when it permitted an Hasidic sect to place an 18-foot menorah on the steps of a civic office building. The court found that the creche was forbidden because it made no pretense of being anything other than a sectarian representation of the Nativity, while the the menorah, despite its ownership, was rendered constitutionally neutral by the addition of aChristmas tree and an inscription promoting liberty.

Writing for the majority, Justice Harry A. Blackmun argued that “the government’s use of religious symbolism is unconstitutional if it has the effect of endorsing religious beliefs, and the effect of the government’s use of religious symbolism depends upon its context.” Thus, Blackmun wrote, Pittsburgh’s display of a menorah and a Christmas tree was permissible because it could “be understood as conveying the city’s secular recognition of different traditions for celebrating the winter holiday season.”

Such a standard, which invites the appropriation of religious symbols for a purely secular purpose--be it political or commercial--is and should be offensive to sincere believers. More to the point, it is an open invitation to endless and needlessly divisive litigation. The fact is that a creche is a symbol of a Christian feast day; a menorah represents the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. To pretend otherwise is to invite the insensitive and the unheeding to affront others through subterfuge.

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