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Friday, December 2, 2005
'Holiday' trees hit wall of resistance
In the rotunda of the Warren County Administration Building, County Commissioner Dave Young declared that an ornament-adorned artificial evergreen there is unabashedly "a Christmas tree - not a 'holiday tree.'"
In taking a stand on a controversy emerging in other U.S. cities, Young said labeling a Christmas tree as a "holiday tree" is ludicrous.
"Christmas is alive and well in Warren County," Young said, "and not calling this a Christmas tree would be like telling Jewish people, 'You can't call it a menorah - call it a 'candle holder.'"
Young says no one has complained about the tree yet.
He said he and other Christians are becoming more vocal to counterattack "an epidemic of political correctness." He cited attempts to excise religious references from U.S. currency, the Pledge of Allegiance and from Christmas celebrations.
Young said he sides with a Christian group that threatened to sue Boston after the city called its Christmas tree a "holiday" tree. This week in Washington, D.C., officials changed the name of the "Capitol Holiday Tree" to "Capitol Christmas Tree."
The tree name-game represents the latest chapter in a long-running social and legal debate over public displays of religious-type symbols, especially on government property - ranging from the 10 Commandments on school grounds to the Ku Klux Klan cross on Fountain Square and Nativity scenes in public parks.
Some local people of non-Christian faiths say the sight of a Christmas tree doesn't offend them - and they think it's silly to call a Christmas tree by any other name. But some are concerned about exclusion of non-Christian displays.
Karen Dabdoub, a Muslim who lives in Montgomery, agreed that a Christmas tree should be called a Christmas tree.
"I mean, that's what it is. Who are we fooling? The Jews don't put up a tree for Hanukah; the Muslims don't put up a tree for Ramadan," she said. "It doesn't take away from my celebration of my holiday for other people to celebrate their holiday. I don't want anybody's holidays to be watered-down. I think they're all wonderful."
Some of Dabdoub's relatives are Christian, she said, "And I wish my family, 'Merry Christmas!' I don't want to be a Scrooge."
Dabdoub, however, said she is concerned about use of government funds for Christmas displays - and "when Christmas is the only holiday out there on the public scene."
Sharon Wasserberg, director of education for Adath Israel Congregation in Amberley Village, said Jewish people tend to respect that Christmas trees are a very significant part of Christians' Christmas celebrations. She agreed it's ridiculous to call a Christmas tree a holiday tree, noting, "There's no such thing as a Hanukah bush."
Speaking as a Jew, not on behalf of the congregation, Wasserberg says she doesn't think Christmas trees belong on public property. "But having said that," she said, "I don't deny that they're pretty decorations."
She thinks a Christmas tree display "definitely crosses the line" if it includes a Nativity scene.
Such debates have been recurring for years because, "the whole area of law separating religion and state is one of the most confusing," said Ronna Greff Schneider, professor of law at the University of Cincinnati.
Fueling the confusion: divided court decisions.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right for a privately financed Nativity scene to be displayed in a public park in the 1980s, Schneider said, yet some case law bans crèches from more official settings, such as on courthouse steps.
In making such rulings, courts usually consider whether the purpose and context are religious.
Generally, courts have ruled that Christmas trees and other quasi-religious symbols are OK to display in public places as long as they do not "endorse a particular religion or religious view," Schneider said. And, she said, multireligion displays are also acceptable if they include nonreligious or secular icons such as reindeer.
Calling something a Christmas tree doesn't automatically mean that a government endorses Christmas, either, she said, because people can interpret seemingly religious symbols in nonreligious ways.
"I think it centers on the issue of how we celebrate Christmas in this country," Schneider said. "Is it meant to be a religious holiday? Or is it meant to be a celebration of all of the wonderful things that Christmas is supposed to stand for?"
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