In my post about the impact of Jews on the celebration of Christmas, I suggested that Jews have “led the charge to limit public celebration of this great religious holiday.” The distinguished historian John Steele Gordon responded that “it has always seemed to me that it was not Jews but atheists (a religion of its own in that it is a belief system that is untestable) who have led the charge against public celebrations of Christmas as an ‘establishment of religion.’”
Gordon may well be right about this, especially these days, when atheism seems to have come more to the fore and the menorah is typically part of the holiday season display package. However, the role of Jews should not be underestimated.
Let’s consider, for example, the assault on public display of the creche which, perhaps because of (fond) childhood memories, I consider the quintessential religious symbol of Christmas in the public square. In Chicago, every December for 30 years, a creche was displayed in the lobby of the Chicago City-County building. Then, in 1985, the American Jewish Congress sued the City of Chicago contending that the display violates the Establishment Clause. By a 2-1 decision (with the excellent Judge Easterbrook dissenting) the Seventh Circuit agreed with the American Jewish Congress, and that was the end of the display.
The Seventh Circuit panel distinguished its case from Lynch v. Donnelly, a 1984 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Christmas display of the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There, the Supreme Court had permitted a nativity scene because the display also included “a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, [and] a large banner that reads ‘SEASONS GREETINGS’.” I would have taken my kids to see that.
The published opinion lists two amici (friends of the court) that argued in favor of holding the display unlawful. They are the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
The Supreme Court opined again about creches in 1989 in Allegheny Country v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU. In this case, the creche was displayed on the grand staircase of the Allegheny County courthouse. The manger had at its crest an angel bearing a banner proclaiming “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” The Supreme Court held that this display violated the Establishment Clause.
The case was argued for the ACLU by Roslyn Litman, an outstanding attorney who is a member of the United Jewish Federation. Amici briefs were filed in favor of the ACLU’s position by the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee.
There was nothing wrong with taking the “anti-creche” position in these cases. If the displays at issue offended the various Jewish groups and Jewish lawyers in question, they had every right to litigate the issue. If they were wrong on the law, it was up to the courts to tell them so, as the Supreme Court did in Lynch v. Donnelly. Moreover, for what it’s worth, the Pittsburgh case strikes me as a close legal call.
I just wish that Jews weren’t so offended by public displays that celebrate the religious content of Christmas.
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