I hope that everyone had a nice Thanksgiving! I know it's been a while, and I apologize for the delay in posting. Hopefully, there will be posts on a slightly more regular basis (2-3 times per week) in general. I decided that we'd take a break from the morality stuff, at least for a little bit, and examine a local issue of great national interest. After all, this blog is about religious relevance, and the discussion of important societal issues that intersect with religion is certainly appropriate.
This week, the Governor of Rhode Island (a great place to live!), Lincoln Chafee, caused a firestorm of debate by referring to the Christmas tree in the Statehouse as a "holiday tree." Obviously, it's a Christmas tree, and isn't a "holiday tree" anymore than a menorah could aptly be described as a "holiday lamp." Further, what other holiday is celebrated by the acquisition and display of a large evergreen. Radio pundits and journalists were quick to proclaim that the governor was the next aggressor in the proverbial "War on Christmas" and the attempt to eliminate religion from the public sphere.
Briefly, some comments on the historical development of the law in this area. Although many are familiar with the sacrosanct notion of "separation between church and state," the phrase appears exactly zero times in U.S. Constitution. Rather, it is the natural byproduct of two important first amendment clauses. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ." Establishment has come to be defined by the so-called Lemon Test, promulgated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The test has three components, and is meant to define establishment:
1) A law or state action must have a secular purpose
2) A law or state action must not have the primary purpose of advancing or inhibiting religion
3) A law or state action must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion
On the face of it, a Christmas tree, or holiday bush, or whatever you call it, would seem to violate the Lemon Test. After all, it's primary purpose seems to be to advance a particular religion, and it could be said to represent an excessive entanglement with religion. If a law fails any prong of the Lemon test, it is to be considered unconstitutional.
That being said, the Supreme Court has upheld certain types of governmental holiday displays, so long as they can adequately be said to be secular in nature. For example, in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Court upheld a Christmas scene in nearby Pawtucket. In that case, the rationale was that the scene included snowmen, candy canes, and other winter objects, demonstrating that it was merely a winter display, and not a Christmas display.
Personally, I'd take a different approach. It seems to me entirely dishonest to say that a "winter scene" is secular because it includes a snowman next to the "holiday tree." It's a Christmas display and everyone knows it. If someone wants to argue that Christmas has somehow become a national secular holiday, that might be a different story. However, there's a more honest argument to be made on other grounds. Just because the Christmas tree is clearly related to Christmas doesn't necessarily make the government action an establishment of religion. If the governor, a Christian, wants to display a Christmas tree, it need not follow that Rhode Island is establishing Christianity as the state religion. In fact, we all know that Rhode Island would never do such a thing, and does not actively discriminate based on religion in any which way. Makes no difference here. Therefore, these types of things should be allowed even if they violate the Lemon Test. It's good in some cases, but in general, the test goes a little too far in determining what actually constitutes the establishment of religion.