The December Dilemma

Filed under: Opinions

Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa. It's all good. Credit: Corbis / Getty Images

Each and every December, the perennial complaint is aired by a handful of devoutly religious groups and commentators that there is a movement afoot to somehow "secularize" the holiday season or to "censor" Christmas.

Some groups even use the holidays as an annual rallying cry against what they perceive as an out-and-out assault against Christianity, pointing to store clerks who might substitute "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" or school holiday assemblies that may lack religious content as part of a wider movement to secularize the country and undermine people of faith.

They almost uniformly point an accusatory finger at organizations that work toward ensuring the separation of church and state in schools and in government. They accuse these groups of being "the Grinch" and, worse, of trying to undermine the religious fabric of our society.

These charges make for good sound bites, but they are hurtful, damaging and fundamentally untrue. They show a profound misunderstanding of "the December Dilemma" -- the seasonal need to ensure that the December holidays are inclusive to all, regardless of religious identity, faith or affiliation.
All Americans have the absolute right to celebrate the holidays as their conscience dictates. As such, I have no quarrel whatsoever with Christians who want to "put Christ back in Christmas." Indeed, many who feel that way would likely agree with me that religious devotions belong in houses of worship, private institutions, in the home and in the heart.

The secularization of Christmas is more myth than reality. Isn't it silly to suggest that there is a de-emphasis on the holiday season when, if you just look around, one experiences the reality of the holidays on every street corner? There are Christmas trees galore, a smattering of Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, many festive lights and displays, numerous Santa sightings, reindeer prancing and good wishes all around for a season of happiness and peace.

Religious celebrations of the holidays and expressions of religious belief play a vital role in enriching the personal and spiritual lives of many Americans. They have always done so and always will. My intent is not to prevent Americans from wishing each other a "Merry Christmas," or from including a Christmas song in a holiday concert -- quite the contrary. It is my hope that expressions of faith are done with sensitivity to others in the true spirit of the season.

This means that there is always an imperative for public institutions, including schools, town halls, courthouses, parks and other public facilities that are open to all to be sensitive to all religious points of view without favoring one religion over another. This is the true promise of a religiously diverse society such as ours, one that is written into our nation's founding documents, and one that has become more important as our society as become more religiously and ethnically diverse.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion to all Americans by prohibiting the government from endorsing or promoting any particular religious point of view. This prohibition has led courts to ban religious activities in public schools, such as organized prayer, and the teaching of creationism. Indeed, a sturdy wall separating church and state is essential to preserving and promoting freedom of religion in our increasingly pluralistic nation.

When it comes to government, if it chooses to recognize our nation's rich religious and culture traditions, it must also ensure communal harmony. To that end, our public institutions should strive to respect Americans of all traditions, including Christmas, by acknowledging the December holidays in a spirit of inclusiveness that instills an appreciation for diversity.

Each year, my team works closely with school districts to ensure that a proper balance is met in negotiating the "December Dilemma." For example, we were once asked to work with an elementary school in which December holiday activities left a number of students feeling ostracized from their classmates.

In one public-school classroom, for example, when students worked on a Christmas angel arts-and-crafts project, Jewish students were instructed to leave the classroom and work on another project in the hallway.

To these young students such incidents are painful lessons that may have a harmful impact on their civic development and view of American society. It wrongly teaches them that to be a full member of the community they have to sacrifice their religious beliefs and freedom.

The December holidays should never be a lesson about religious division and exclusion, but a source of communal good will, respect and understanding.

Some argue that it's trivial whether a public school limits its holiday observances to Christmas. But our nation's schools are the incubators of American values and civic life. They must be sensitive, and seek to instill an understanding of respect for diversity, tolerance, acceptance and inclusion for every student.

These ideas are not anti-religion. In fact, they are strongly pro-religion. They are fundamentally American values. It is the right of religious liberty for all Americans and the right of everyone to celebrate the religious traditions of their own choosing – whether in the majority or the minority.

So let's stop with all of the recriminations and accusations surrounding this time of year. Let's put the emphasis back on the things that make the holiday season so special -- a time of reverence, of goodwill and of peace for all.

Deborah M. Lauter is the Anti-Defamation League's Director of Civil Rights. More information on the "December Dilemma" is available on the League's Web site.

Related: Christians to Blame For Secular Christmas

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