The Perennial Holiday Display Conflict

Ok, so below is a ‘thought-paper’ I wrote for a couple of classes in my Public Administration program and I thought it was appropriate to share with you all considering the time of year it is. I look forward to your feedback….

Part I
The holidays are a particularly painful part of the year for me. It’s not for any particular personal reason, or anything, save a pet peeve. It seems that every year there is an interminable argument regarding the presentation of religion in the public work place. As I understand it Governor Christie in New Jersey has mandated that Christmas Trees in public spaces are to be referred to as ‘Holiday Trees’ henceforth. This delineation is utterly inane, ludicrous and unnecessary. Firstly, there is a fundamental problem in that the Constitutional separation of Church and State extends to religious displays in public spaces. Generally, the Supreme Court has found that the separation can extend to equal representation in place of zero representation. This is all well and good, except given that displays are in public spaces, and by extension ‘supported’ by the government, there is an inherent ruckus caused between people that desperately don’t want any governmental backing of religion whatsoever, to the extent that it becomes a tremendous grudge that they bear, and people that that don’t see a problem with a nativity scene or Christmas Tree on the city Hall lawn or Courthouse window.

Part II
Organizationally, this creates a problem. If an agency is free to display religious symbols and dioramas, then there must be an effort to provide equal time and equal effort to all the religious pluralalities and their displays in the district. The question becomes, how much of the Agency’s resources are enough to expend for such a purpose? The time it takes to build, store and develop the displays for each religion, this is compounded by the budget resources expended in purchasing the materials and paying personnel to display the materials. All of this is for religious displays that are not necessary given the ubiquity of religious displays in the private marketplace. It seems to me that displaying the nativity scene or a Hannukah menorah in the public space is more work and more costly than is really appropriate. If there are available funds to spend on display materials then are there not some other more pressing matters that the money, however minimal the costs might be, would be better utilized for? Perhaps it can be used to support increased marketing to drive more shopping and spending in the local downtown or to support an annual winter support drive for the homeless.

This is not to say that this is an issue in every municipality, but certainly those municipalities that are economically strapped experience greater troubles than others. For example, the City of Walnut Creek in Contra Costa County is very well to do and experienced minimal economic issues during our recent downturn, has always been able to dress their downtown with quite a bit of Christmas ‘cheer’ as well as a massive 15 foot tall propane Menorah that they use to hold a special small service in public every night during Hannukah. Clearly, they have no concerns when it comes to being able to service more than one religion in their public spaces. A municipality like Merced, for example, will always have trouble accommodating this and achieving a sense of balance when it comes to assigning funds and resources to holiday displays.

Part III
In managing human capital, the holiday display dilemma poses additional issues. Firstly, as a form of resource, manpower, it shares the same problems as budgeting. What is an acceptable quantity of man-hours to spend on assembling and disassembling holiday displays and how much is too much before employees ought to be shoo-ed back to their primary work? More uniquely to Human Resources, however, is the representation of religious displays in the workspaces of a-religious and differently faithed employees? In the context of a public agency should a Muslim, devout or not, be forced to work in an environment coated with Christmas décor? Conversely, what about Christian employees that take umbrage with equal display of a Hannukah menorah or dreidel during what is regarded as a primarily Christian holiday? Although it may boost the morale of a certain specific group of the employee pool, if it causes an equally negative morale dip in other specific segments of the employee should the practice even be continued? Particularly if employees prove to be incapable of leaving the political question in their passenger seat of the commuter car and bring heated debate over the religious nature of the founding fathers and historical ethno/cultural/religious status quo of the nation’s population?

Ultimately, this is an issue where there is no pleasantly simple answer. The Constitutional concept of the separation of Church and state is clear, as has been the Supreme Court findings on such issues. The government, at every level, cannot bring a material or symbolic religious preference to the public as a matter of maintaining a theoretically open public space for every person of every faith to co-exist under. The Supreme Court decisions have not disallowed holiday displays on public grounds as much as they have supported equal space and equal time, ‘equal displays’ for simplicity’s sake.

Often times the side of the spectrum that spends 11 months of the year screaming about being an ‘A NATION UNDER A RULE OF LAW’, tosses this credo aside when it comes to Christmas. Likewise, many times the opposite side of the spectrum, that tries to stand forth for freedom from oppression for everybody BY everybody, brings forth a sense of dissatisfaction at the thought of anything other complete removal of religion to prevent potential religious oppression. The fact of the matter is, personally, I am MORE offended by those people that make a public display out of calling it Christmas instead of the holidays. “I REFUSE to say Happy Holidays!” They bellow defiantly, I AM a CHRISTIAN and I will tell you MERRY CHRISTMAS! HARUMPH!” Harrumph indeed. Equally offensive are the people that demand that ‘G-d’ be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance and that Christmas Parades be referred to as ‘Holiday Parades.’ “I am NOT a CHRISTIAN, I am an ATHEIST and I am offended by the preponderance of pro-Christian bias and deferment in December! Jesus was NOT my savior and I will sue you if you continue to promote this theocratic drabble!! HARUMPH!” Oh yes, harrumph; I heard you the first time.

If people took a little more time to be peaceable and friendly, and cared a little less about the insignificant details, we could avoid this ridiculous argument more years than not. Are there more important things that our resources and public employees can be doing besides putting up wreaths and ribbons? Of course there are. IS it worth the effort to promote the general sense of community, family and goodwill that Christmas is SUPPOSED to be about (or so I’m told)? If the community responds to it, then of course it’s worth the effort. What it comes down to is the expression of the sentiment, regardless of the words chosen to express, is a return to a friendlier mode of operations that we ought to be pursuing on a daily basis, year round. Instead, we wish our neighbors a happy day and promote fellowship for about a month, all while bitching about a stupid tree.


One response to “The Perennial Holiday Display Conflict

  • Eric Carpenter

    “Equally offensive are the people that demand that ‘G-d’ be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance”

    I would of much rather that congress of 1954 didn’t revise the pledge and our money to add god.

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