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William Raspberry

Common Sense for the Holidays

By William Raspberry
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page A23

David O'Hara was writing in response to a recent column in which I -- inexplicably -- referred to C.S. Lewis as a "cleric." However, he didn't write to complain about my embarrassing error but rather my suggestion that Lewis's notion of a two-tier marriage -- civic and sacramental -- might shed some light on the debate over same-sex marriage.

Both Lewis's 50-year-old essay and my application of it to the modern marriage controversy make "perfect sense," O'Hara said, in what was, intended or not, a perfect setup line for what came next:

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"How do you apply this kind of reasoning to the conundrum of Christmas carols and symbols in public schools, courthouses and other public spaces?"

He must have been reading about the New Jersey case in which the South Orange/Maplewood school board barred the performance of Christmas carols or other religious works in public school programs. "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells" and "Skater's Waltz" are fine, but no "Silent Night" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" -- even as instrumentals.

It's easier to describe the ruling as silly than to dismiss as frivolous the deliberations that produced it. The controversy started maybe a decade ago with complaints that a particular high school's winter concert was pretty much an undisguised celebration of Christmas. The board then adopted a policy that, henceforth, school activities should (1) have a secular purpose, (2) neither advance nor inhibit religion, and (3) be relevant to the curriculum.

As it turned out, the decree was all but impossible to interpret, so the board reconsidered and outlawed anything with a religious content.

All O'Hara wanted to know was what common-sense solution I might apply. Or, as he put it, "just how freely can we celebrate Christmas in America without being hamstrung by . . . the dogmatic religionists on one side or militant secularists on the other?

"To be afraid of presenting glorious church music in public auditoriums is outrageous," he said. "After all, so much of this music and tradition has become the property of the entire society."

I put the matter to Kevin Hasson, chairman of the Becket Fund, a nonpartisan interfaith public interest law firm that defends the "free expression of all religious traditions." Hasson's response will warm O'Hara's heart.

"Art has always entered religion," he said, noting that both have become a part of our culture. "Who would take Michelangelo's 'David' out of the repertoire of publicly displayed sculpture? Who would excise 'Fiddler' from the drama repertoire, or leave Dante out of the literary repertoire? These things, however religious in their symbolism, are part of our culture, the psychological space in which we live and which includes not just art and music but also architecture, literature and manners. They are part of the common culture."

But surely, I said, some of these expressions -- Christmas carols? -- are not held in common by all of us.

"In a pluralistic society," Hasson said, "there are very few things everybody holds in common -- except the idea that we ought to respect what we don't hold in common."

Sometimes we know that. Which is why we allow space for Black History Month and why no one -- so far as Hasson knows -- has sued to enjoin the celebration of St. Patrick's Day as an incipient white-supremacy plot.

But isn't religion different?

Hasson thinks we've redefined the constitutional requirement of government neutrality toward religion to mean government opposition to religion. "For government to participate in the culture across the board -- proclaiming 'Catfish Day' or 'National Jukebox Week,' for instance -- but to excise religion says something very profound about religion."

He has some sympathy for the South Orange/Maplewood school board's efforts to parse out what is reasonably permissible, but he thinks it may be more productive to start at the other end -- to examine what options government really has when it comes to religion and public life. He thinks there are only three: to censor religion out of the culture entirely, which is clearly impossible; to choose a religion, which is unconstitutional, unethical and profoundly unwise; or to welcome all religion to the public square. If those are truly the options, the choice is obvious.

And not just to Hasson and O'Hara.

Jehiel Orenstein, a South Orange rabbi, recently preached a sermon in which he urged the school board to rethink its anti-carol policy.

"I think the best thing is to keep religion out of the public school system," he said, according to the New York Times. "But I love music, and I guess this comes down to what we call sachel, which means good old-fashioned common sense."



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