Thursday, December 18, 2008

'Tis the Season?

Come the winter holidays, you can bet there will disagreements over religious displays. Should the town square be allowed to have a nativity scene? Can Hanukkah songs be included in a school pageant? What about the star and crescent? In Vermont, the latest furor is over the Charlotte Elementary School, where several pillars near the front door are wrapped to resemble candy canes.

According to the Burlington Free Press, William Gerson wrote the local school board to complain. “To me, the candy cane has only one context — and that is Christmas and because of this it is truly a religious sign.”

I see his point. Candy canes are associated with Christmas, in my mind, too. But so are snowflakes, Norelco razors, eggnog, animatronic polar bears, and Lord Calvert Gin. Surely these aren’t all Christian symbols as well?

The Founders tried to separate church and state, but there was never a bright line of demarcation in their minds. Thomas Jefferson regarded the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of his proudest achievements, for example, but saw no conflict in taking his daughters to Sunday worship in the newly constructed capitol building. The Founders gave us a First Amendment broadly written to guarantee free expression of spiritual beliefs, with a prohibition on erecting an official establishment. But we are still interpreting their words–probably because they weren’t entirely sure in their own minds what they intended.

Next month, our president will place his hand on a Bible and swear to uphold a Constitution that makes no mention of God and guarantees people of every faith equal rights of citizenship. This is a logical and legal contradiction, no doubt.

But like candy canes on the school house door, it is a tension I can live with.

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