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Religious ‘neutrality’ is a myth. Let City Hall light up those Christmas trees, no menorah necessary

Religious ‘neutrality’ is a myth. Let City Hall light up those Christmas trees, no menorah necessary
President Obama sings Christmas carols on stage beside performers and family members Dec. 1 at the 94th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington. (Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency)

In 2003, at age 21, I wrote an op-ed for my hometown paper arguing that the Montpelier, Vt., City Hall should remove its Christmas tree. I argued that Christmas decorations symbolically told Jews like me, and other non-Christians, that city government stood more for the religious majority than for us. Including menorahs and calling the decorations a "holiday" display didn't help, I argued, since everyone knew what "holiday" was intended. Furthermore, lumping the two holidays together was demeaning to the dignities of Hanukkah and Christmas alike.

Now, 13 years later, I believe I was mostly wrong. Public Christmas decorations are not just acceptable, but actively good for society.

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I have no dramatic epiphany to explain my about-face. And although I've aged from 21 to 34 (which is something I can't recommend highly enough), I can't explain my reversal by saying I just mellowed out, because I still don't see this issue as trivial. I believed then, and still believe, that symbolism is important.

Partly, I misunderstood constitutional principles. I thought the 1st Amendment mandated a "wall of separation" between religion and government. Actually, it protects citizens' rights to exercise their religions freely, and prevents the government from choosing an official religion. That doesn't mean it can't perform any religious functions. (Thank God for that—otherwise the government would have to stop paying salaries to military and prison chaplains.)

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Too often, religion is pushed out of the public square by misguided devotees of secular “neutrality”—people like me, 13 years ago.


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But the heart of my objection was never about legal doctrine for its own sake. It was emotional; I felt slighted by the municipal Christmas tree, and I assumed that I could only feel equal and welcome in a perfectly neutral society.

Neutrality is OK, except that it isn't possible — not when it comes to religion. That's what Joseph Weiler, a law professor and observant Jew, argued in 2010 before the European Court of Human Rights, as he made the case that Italian public schools should be allowed to display the crucifix. (His side won.)

Weiler told a parable of two Italian children: One has a crucifix hanging on the wall at home, the other does not. If the school displays a crucifix, the first child sees his home practice validated by the school, and vice versa. The answer, Weiler concluded, isn't to chase neutrality, but to "contextualize [the crucifix] and teach the children in the Italian class tolerance and pluralism."

In our American public institutions, as in Italian schools, we can't have neutrality — but we can have tolerance and pluralism.

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That isn't to say we need menorahs next to the city Christmas tree. On that point I feel much as I did 13 years ago: We should stop lumping Hanukkah and Christmas together. Hanukkah — a holiday celebrating a Jewish rebellion against assimilation into a majority culture — shouldn't have to bear the irony of being assimilated into a majority holiday. And Christmas deserves to keep its particular identity as well.

You don't need to blend holidays to be a good pluralist. In fact, you're a better pluralist if you don't blend them. Celebrating minority faiths only as part of celebrating the majority faith is just condescending tokenism. Don't throw some kind of Eid ornament onto your "holiday" tree in December; host a City Hall iftar during Ramadan, whenever it happens to fall. Don't relegate Jewish inclusion to a menorah surrounded by "holiday" tinsel; build a City Hall sukkah during Sukkot instead. It's a more important holiday, and one with much better decorative potential. And, in December, let the Christmas tree be a Christmas tree.

By embracing religious symbolism more openly, without awkwardly failing at neutrality, government will be free to attempt a more meaningful pluralism that engages with the particularity of each group, rather than conflating them all.

In our current political moment, when diversity is under attack, that last point is especially important.

Many in the political and cultural mainstream seem to assume that tribal sub-groups can only undermine national cohesion. But tribal identities can broaden circles of trust. As Edmund Burke put it, "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle ... of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind."

You can love your tribe and your country. You'll probably love your country all the more if you feel it respects your "little platoon" by acknowledging, rather than ignoring it — with a Christmas tree, or a sukkah, or an iftar.

Too often, religion is pushed out of the public square by misguided devotees of secular "neutrality" — people like me, 13 years ago — to the detriment of true inclusion. Today, I am glad to say to Montpelier, and to all other American cities and towns: Please keep lighting Christmas trees at City Hall. We need to find our way together by kindling the lights of many faiths, not by seeking the perverse — and false — fairness of extinguishing them all.

Seth Chalmer writes about religion and culture.

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