View Full Version : Clash over symbols

12-03-2004, 07:25 AM
Tree, menorah at courthouse spur debate over holiday displays

By Mareva Brown -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Friday, December 3, 2004

The day after Thanksgiving, as tradition dictates, a Christmas tree was erected in the rotunda of the federal courthouse in Sacramento accompanied by a background of piped-in carols and garlands of evergreens draped around the guards' desks.

Attorney Michele Waldinger noticed it when she returned to work Monday after the long holiday. Feeling the holiday spirit, she asked the building's manager if she could donate a menorah and tissue paper drei dels for a Hanukkah display nearby.

The 14-inch menorah was placed on a ledge at the rear of the rotunda, where it became a source of controversy almost immediately.

Over the past three days, as both the menorah and tree were removed from and then returned to the ornate courthouse lobby, a debate has raged throughout the offices above: Where is the line between holiday decor and religious expression?

There is no easy answer, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows public displays of both icons as symbols of the holiday season.

"This is a perennial fight in communities across the country," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., and a national expert on the debate over holiday displays. "It's very difficult for government to do religion and get it right."

From the City Hall of Durham, N.C., which eliminated Hanukkah and Kwanzaa symbols in its holiday display this year, to the Indiana University School of Law, which replaced its Christmas tree in 2002 with a generic winter scene, the evergreen symbol of holiday cheer has drawn angry debate.

Central to the debate is whether the Christmas tree, which has its roots in pagan symbolism, is a symbol of Christianity or merely a secular symbol of the holiday season akin to Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

"Many non-Christians see the tree and Santa Claus as Christian symbols," said Haynes, who writes a column on religious freedom. "But when menorahs are stuck next to the trees, many Christians feel left out, because they don't see themselves as the Christmas tree."

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, ruling that a menorah and a Christmas tree displayed together with a holiday season legend were secular symbols and allowable in a public display.

The ruling prompted many governmental bodies to erect generic displays combining Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, with religious symbols like the Christmas creche and Hanukkah menorah.

In Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his predecessor have handled the issue by holding separate Christmas tree-and menorah-lighting ceremonies.

Thursday night, Schwarzenegger presided over the lighting of what he has renamed the Christmas tree. Under former Gov. Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger last year, the ceremony marked the lighting of the more generic "holiday tree."

Schwarzenegger reminisced about his childhood Christmases in Austria before helping to light the decorated 56-foot white fir tree on the west side of the state Capitol.

"We were taught not to worry that much about the material things, we were taught more to think about the spirit, the joy of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ," Schwarzenegger said.

Schwarzenegger will preside over the Hanukkah celebration next week, officials said.

One legal expert said that while the law may be clear, there is no shortage of irony in the debate.

"To argue whether a menorah and a Christmas tree have equal religious significance is arguing apples and oranges," said Alan E. Brownstein, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, and a church-state expert. "A menorah is more generally thought of as religious in nature, but Hanukkah has almost no religious significance. On the other hand, a Christmas tree is not generally regarded as religious in nature, but it goes hand-in-hand with Christianity's most important holiday."

That distinction can be easily lost in the heat of debate.

While Sacramento federal courthouse officials are on sound ground - legally - in allowing both the menorah and the tree to grace the marble-floored rotunda, the issue at hand may not be a legal one.

"It was very frightening and very upsetting to me to realize that in the federal courthouse, in the capital of the largest blue state in the country, there were people that were upset about seeing a 14-inch menorah," Waldinger said. "It's not just a legal issue for me."

After Waldinger placed her menorah at the rear of the courthouse rotunda on Monday, some occupants complained that it was a religious symbol and not appropriate for public display in a courthouse. They said its presence singled out one religion, and could open the door for the courthouse to be required to display other religious and nonreligious holiday displays.

Tuesday morning, Waldinger was asked to move her menorah by Rob Rigsby, who oversees the building's operations for the U.S. General Services Administration. He told her he also would be removing the bow-topped Christmas tree, which shone in the front window of the building.

"I said, 'How is Judaism being singled out with a 14-inch menorah when there's a 9-foot Christmas tree?' " she said.

But while Waldinger was angry about the menorah, she said she pleaded with Rigsby not to remove the tree, fearing it would ignite anti-Jewish sentiment.

"My parents are Holocaust survivors," said Waldinger, a longtime member of Congregation B'nai Israel, which was burned by anti-Semitic arsonists in 1999. "My son had his bar mitzvah in a temple sanctuary that had folding chairs because it had been burned."

Nonetheless, both came down on Tuesday, prompting a flurry of complaints and at least one petition to Rigsby requesting the return of the tree.

"We felt it was necessary to take them down until we resolved the concerns of the people in the building," General Services Administration spokeswoman Bethany Rich said. Rigsby said he could not discuss the matter.

On Thursday, after a series of meetings with courthouse officials and, ultimately, with the General Services Administration, the tree and the menorah were returned - simultaneously - to the rotunda.

"Federal buildings are allowed to display both Christmas and Hanukkah decorations," Rich said. "So there shouldn't be any (reason) not to."

Link (http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/story/11642763p-12531988c.html)