SHHH! Don’t let the Court know…

We recently set up our Christmas tree. As previously described, to me a Christmas tree is rife with religious symbolism.  But SHHHHH! Don’t tell Justice Blackmun (or his successors) that the Christmas tree, like the menorah, is a religious symbol.  Otherwise, you will soon see no more Christmas trees in public places.  Consider why not:

In County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989), the Supreme Court held constitutional under the first amendment, after applying the so-called Lemon test, a part of a holiday display outside the city-county building in Allegheny County. (The creche part was held to violate the first amendment injunction against governmental endorsement of religion).

The display at issue included an18-foot Chanukah menorah placed outside the



alongside a 45-foot Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty.  The Court reasoned that this was constitutional under Lemon because the "combined display" is a secular winter-holiday celebration (not unlike a museum exhibit). 

According to Justice Blackmun, who wrote the opinion of the Court, the Christmas tree is undoubtedly "secular," and it’s massive.  Since it’s so much bigger than the menorah, typcially a religious symbol, it must control the menorah’s meaning.  And besides, there’s no less religious alternative to the Christmas tree which, unlike the menorah, is not a religious symbol (although it once was).

Because I like to see Christmas trees (and menorahs) during the holidays in public places (I think it adds a nice "christmasy" feel), I hope nobody points Justice Blackmun to my essay about the religious associations of a Christmas tree…

That said, and this one throw-away statement at the end here is worthy of its own complete blog post, I do not understand why people make such a big fuss when government buildings are not allowed to have creche displays because they have been held to constitute an impermissible Government endorsement of religion.  If the only way to allow the creche to be displayed in public buildings is to call then "secular" symbols akin to Santa and his reindeer (see, e.g., Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1986)) , then I would rather NOT have them displayed publically and retain their sacredness. 

Besides, when we have abundant churches and religious homes that have *beautiful* creche displays, why do public buildings NEED to have them?  (Hmmm. I guess the same could be said of Christmas trees. But I rather enjoy the sight of a large, decorated Christmas tree, even if it is labelled "secular").

9 Responses to SHHH! Don’t let the Court know…

  1. john f. says:

    for all intents and purposes, the public Christmas trees are secular, but that does not diminish the religious significance your Christmas trees can have for you.

  2. Jordan says:

    I agree with that statement. However, if the Christmas tree were to generally take on a momre religious meaning, like the deep one I ascribe to it in my “O Tannenbaum!” essay, then it would lose its “secular” nature and the Court would have to therefore find its display unconstitutional.

  3. john f. says:

    I would agree that that would be the necessary finding, and frankly, I agree with that outcome. We can’t have the state endorsing any one religion in this country. It is a recipe for discrimination, no matter how much lip-service the country gives to tolerance.

  4. john f. says:

    Did you toggle something on the comments? It now makes me go through an anti-spambot step before the comment is posted. That is arguably a good thing–it’s just a surprise to see that function enabled here without our direction.

  5. Jordan says:

    I agree with that outcome as well, as you know from previous posts of mine. But I would still be sad to see the last trace of Christmas gone from public space. Christmas trees are just too much fun!

    So let’s keep mum on the word that we treat the Christmas tree as religious in our own homes…

    And I don’t know why the anti-spam bot is working. I thought you enabled it.

  6. don says:

    Back the whole train up here a minute!!

    Why would we agree to change the very principles this country was founded on…that being that WE ARE (or at least were) a Christian country founded on Christian principles and we embrace religious tolerance. Allowing the 10 commandments to be displayed at a courthouse, or allowing a Christmas tree or a nativity scene to be displayed doesn’t mean we no longer have religious tolerance. Nor does it mean the Catholic, or Methodist church is the state religion.

    I could go on and on, but this whole issue boils my blood. The liberal courts have changed way too much about our country and the founding fathers are turning in their graves.

  7. Jordan says:


    I hear where you are coming from. But the founding fathers did not have such a religiously diverse society to deal with as we do now. We want to have a welcoming society- not one that screams “You’re welcome, but only if you are a Christian!”

    The lack of separation between church and state caused major problems for my mormon ancestors, who were persecuted at the hands of the “christians” who ran the government and saw the mormon faith as a horrible apparition. If things were then as they are now, then perhaps my ancestors would have been spared. I will have no problem with religion being infused into every aspect of government the moment Jesus Christ comes to reign in all His power and glory, because he will not use it as a tool to oppress the way men are apt to do. Even men in our society today!

    Until then, I hope to keep government as far away from religion as possible, particularly out of the grasp of evangelical Christians, lest we see a repeat of what my mormon ancestors experienced in the 1830s all the way until the early 20th century at the hands of government too closely intertwined with the majority view of Christianity at the time.

    That said, I do hope that Christmas trees don’t also get cleansed from public display. That would be sad. So even though I personally attach great religious significance to the tree, let’s not let the Supreme Court find out about it… 🙂

  8. don says:

    My ancestors were also part of the percecuted Mormons, but that wasn’t the governments fault. The laws didn’t condone it.

    I think we can be a Christian country and have open arms for all others to come and worship how they would like. But our founding fathers did have a diversity of religions (christian sects) and were very aware of the other world religions when they drew up the documents to found this country. It was founded as a christian country with christian fundamentals and christian beliefs. Having the courts change that based on seperation of church and state is wrong.

    The church and state issue was about not establishing a state religon (sect) like the Methodists being the state church. It was never to seperate Christianity, nor christian principles, christian commandments, or christian fundamentals from the government.

    There I’ve said my 2 pence worth.

  9. Jordan says:

    The governor of the State of Missouri is the government. The extermination order he issued was the law.

    The President of the United States and the Congress of the United States is the government. The felony disenfranchisement statutes they passed were the law.

    This makes your statement that “that wasn’t the governments fault. The laws didn’t condone it” sound quite fanciful indeed.

    Don, would you have a problem if every day, morning, afternoon, and evening, everyone in a government building immediately paused all government business, trials, etc., for everyone to face east and pray? Would you be as willing to allow a huge monument of the Koran in your courthouse as you would a huge monument of the ten commandments? Would you mind little statues of Mohammed in your city hall? What about if your child was in public school and refused to kneel to Allah at prayertime because he worships the Christian God, and Him alone, and while he would be free to refuse, refusing would bring upon him the scorn and wrath of his classmates?

    Don- you and I would surely never persecute others based on their religion. But there are plenty of ignorant people in America even TODAY that are happy to. Things like school prayer, etc., give such people free license to take stock of who is not participating, and to bully them later on (without official school sanction.) By making the prayer the status quo in the school the school puts an imprimatur of approval upon persecuting those who don’t want to go with the status quo- these people feel “different” and excluded from society. As a mormon who grew up in a heavily “born-again” area of the country, I have personally experienced this stigma.

    I am completely supportive of having a higher role for religion in government, in having greater public adknowledgement of the God I serve and love more than anything. But I believe that only Jesus Christ himself is capable of successfully administering such a society, because I believe that most men simply would (and do and have) manipulate religion sanctioned or recognized by the government for their own selfish purposes, whether to get gain or to oppress others or whatever.

    This is abundantly clear in the religious history of most civilized nations, including our own (!); it is abundantly clear in the persecution of my (and apparently your own) ancestors at the hands of the government AND by the government itself; it is abundantly clear from my own experiences growing up in a “minority” religion not even recognized by my peers (or the school district) to be “Christian”.

    We must remember that Mormons are still a “minority” religion who stand to lose much if traditional “Christianity” (which, you must remember, looks upon the LDS faith with much disdain) is interlocked at all with secular government. Just ask my ancestors who were driven from Missouri under GOVERNMENT order, or my ancestors who had to flee to Canada to avoid imprisonment under LAW.

    Without Jesus Christ as the leader, church and state do not mix. With some of the evangelical christian wackos we have influencing government today, mixture of church and state would be/is a complete disaster!

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