A dispassionate discussion of religious symbols appearing in public places is desperately needed in light of the tacit sanction given by the Reagan administration to part of the message of the Moral Majority, the part saying that some governmental promotion of religion is good for the soul of America.
In the Pawtucket decision last March, the Supreme Court allowed a Nativity scene owned by the city to be displayed on private property as part of a larger holiday display. In the reasoning of the court, the inclusion of nonreligious items in the display justified the inclusion of a crtirety being seen as part of the celebration of a national holiday -- Christmas.
The National Park Service took the Pawtucket decision as license to include a Nativity scene as part of the National Pageant of Peace display on the Ellipse. It seems clear that the Park Service jumped the gun in making this decision, since the matter of religious symbols on public property is only now coming to the Supreme Court in the case of McCreary vs. Stone (commonly know as the Scarsdale case).
These court decisions are important in helping to define the limits of government entanglement with religion. But with that said, I still have an aversion to making a case based on the fine points of legal reasoning. The problem is that many view the opponents of public religious symbols as either atheistic or mean-spirited.
Americans who raise objection to the government's aiding, in some way, the display of Nativity scenes during the holiday season are not grinches who seek to steal Christmas. The attempt to retain a strict separation between church and state is an effort based on principle. Inherent in the First Amendment is the recognition that any establishment of religion by the state is undemocratic. The Framers of the Constitution knew the abuses of state religion in Europe and the intolerance that policy bred toward religious minorities. For that reason the Constitution requires the state to be neutral toward religion.
In order for the government to be party to the public display of a Nativity scene, one of two glaring errors in judgment needs to be made. Either one states that the Nativity scene and Christmas itself is a cultural, not a religious, symbol or event. Or one concludes that Christmas is a celebration shared by all Americans.
In the first assumption, Christians are cheated of the full recognition that Christmas is a religious festival marking the birth of their Savior. In the second assumption, non-Christians are cheated because they have foisted upon them a national celebration in which they cannot share.
Although our culture has at its base a shared Judaeo-Christian heritage, that does not imply a common acceptance of the beliefs and practices of any one religion. For this reason, opposition to government sponsorship of religious symbols comes from many quarters, not just from non-Christians. Devout Christians should realize that a national celebration of Christmas comes only at the price of the secularization of the festival.
The Jewish community has been outspoken in its opposition to government sponsorship of religious symbols because it has historically been attuned to the insensitivity of governments to religious minorities. Because of our historic experience, we value, as perhaps no other group can quite appreciate, the pluralistic nature of American society and the principles of religious freedom coupled with the safeguard of church-state separation. For that reason we even oppose the placement of the Hannukah menorah in Lafayette Park, for it also violates the principle that we seek to protect nd defend, notwithstanding the fact that it is "our" symbol.
A society is only as just as it is sensitive to the feelings and needs of its smallest minority. There is a place for people of faith to celebrate the religious festivals that inspire and ennoble them in the context of their own traditions. Better, let the government set the tone for a society where Americans can celebrate their religious festivals in private and join in the task of creating a more just society for all in public.