How do we decide which items with religious connections are appropriate to display in public places?

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Although I’m a committed nontheist and ardent church-state separationist, I’m not inflexible about it.

Which is to say I see no good reason to oppose Christmas trees, for example, in public, tax-supported spaces.

It’s been a centuries-long American civic tradition to erect Christmas trees all over creation, so to speak—in public and private spaces—and these beautiful yuletide decorations, in my view, are cultural far more than religious icons.

I’m thinking about this after the local public library board in Dedham, Massachusetts, made an issue of Christmas trees early last month when it decided to forgo displaying them in the two local library satellites—arbitrarily dismissing a beloved city tradition existing for as long as anyone can remember.

This board decision was made, incidentally without public input, because the presence of the previous year’s tree made one complaining person “uncomfortable,” the board said.

Ultimately, the library board wisely and quickly rescinded its decision after a nasty community “backlash” that included “online threats and bullying,” the Boston Globe reported on December 12.

But the religio-philosophical issue remains: Is it appropriate in a secular republic to allow Christmas trees—whose very name is linked to the Christian religion—to be erected in tax-funded spaces?

To my mind, the essential question is whether a Christmas tree, or any other ornamentation linked to a supernatural faith for that matter, overtly communicates religious dogma or privileges a particular faith over others.

Certainly, many secular people might prefer that nothing whatsoever with religious significance, however tangential, be displayed in public places, like public libraries, courts of law or government offices. I get that.

However, to me, it seems unnecessarily draconian. There’s really no need to be so hard-headed about it. Certainly, workable ways are available to allow some things with religious connections in public places without running afoul of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and church-state separation.

The key virtue in achieving the right balance is, shall we say, good faith: communally agreeing to reasonable guard rails against religious proselytizing and privileging, and allowing any faith or philosophical belief equal treatment and access.

An example of an inappropriate religious symbol in a public space is the giant Christian cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, which is the centerpiece of the “Peace Cross” World War II memorial that looms over busy highways. The US Supreme Court in 2019 ruled, 7-2, that the cross was constitutionally legal because, in effect, it’s by now very old.

However, the cross is—unlike Christmas trees—explicitly religious and explicitly Christian, standing as a promotion for one faith over others. After all, all the soldiers who died in WWII weren’t Christian. When we see Christmas trees, I suspect most Americans think: “happy holiday.” But when we see a monumental Christian cross, we think: “Jesus.”

Such bad-faith religious displays are legion in America.

I’ve frequently read news stories over the years where public bodies—e.g., city councils and state legislatures—have been so reluctant to allow, say, atheists, to give opening invocations (which Christian clergy routinely provide) that they have discontinued invocations altogether rather than face legal blowback for blocking atheists.

That’s the epitome of bad faith.

The US Constitution, as courts have long ruled, fervently intended that a single faith should not have hegemony in American public affairs, that each should be viewed equally, with equal public rights and allowances.

So, in that spirit of religious camaraderie, what would be wrong, for instance, with not only Christmas trees in the Dedham public libraries, but also appropriate, rule-adhering Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or other holy-day displays.

The reason Christmas trees and other yule-season displays are so ubiquitous in America today is that most settlers in the early years of the republic were European Christians, who brought their annual traditional observances with them. For centuries, most Americans, by far, were Christians, upwards of 90 percent for centuries.

But that dominance has been eroding for decades, and American Christians are now well on the road to becoming a majority minority, as a growing exodus from organized religion and immigration are relentlessly diversifying the populace.

When America becomes a far more diverse religious marketplace in coming decades, conservatives insisting Christianity be privileged in public and private spaces—already constitutionally problematic—will become even more indefensible.

Then how will we feel about Christmas trees in public spaces?

My feeling is that as time goes on Christianity will be just one among many faiths pursued in the US, just part of the increasingly complex patchwork quilt of American culture and history.

Perhaps we’ll evolve to a less contentious time, when neither a Christmas tree, nor a Jewish menorah, nor Islamic holy art in public spaces during special times of the year will raise anyone’s hackles.

Problems only need arise with exclusion, not inclusion, unless one faith demands domination over others—as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, et al., greatly feared.

I look forward to the day when an atheist invocation at a local city council meeting will be as inspiring to most attendees as a religious one.

Even more inspiring, if I’m being honest.

So, to answer my original question, Christmas trees should not be banned in tax-funded public spaces, or Santa Claus visits. Only Christmas trees should be banned—particularly if the angel topper is reciting scripture.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...