Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas and the Constitution


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins,
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ."
Yet, Congress has declared December 25 a federal holiday to commemorate Christmas day. Christmas, of course, the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the only son of God, the messiah, and God incarnate (in other words, it has some not-so-subtle religious implications). People often ask me if recognizing Christmas as a federal holiday violates the First Amendment. The answer, per Ganulin v. U.S., 71 F. Supp. 2d 824 (S.D. Ohio 1999) is "No."

The opinion comes from a district court in Ohio but it was subsequently upheld by the Circuit Court which agreed with the District Court's reasoning. The Supreme Court denied certiorari (indicating they will not hear the case). The District Court actually began its analysis with a poem:
"THE COURT WILL ADDRESS PLAINTIFF'S SEASONAL CONFUSION ERRONEOUSLY BELIEVING CHRISTMAS MERELY A RELIGIOUS INTRUSION.

WHATEVER THE REASON CONSTITUTIONAL OR OTHER CHRISTMAS IS NOT AN ACT OF BIG BROTHER!

CHRISTMAS IS ABOUT JOY AND GIVING AND SHARING IT IS ABOUT THE CHILD WITHIN U.S. IT IS MOSTLY ABOUT CARING!

ONE IS NEVER JAILED FOR NOT HAVING A TREE FOR NOT GOING TO CHURCH FOR NOT SPREADING GLEE!

THE COURT WILL UPHOLD SEEMINGLY CONTRADICTORY CAUSES DECREEING “THE ESTABLISHMENT” AND “SANTA” BOTH WORTHWHILE “CLAUS(es)!”

WE ARE ALL BETTER FOR SANTA THE EASTER BUNNY TOO AND MAYBE THE GREAT PUMPKIN TO NAME JUST A FEW!

AN EXTRA DAY OFF IS HARDLY HIGH TREASON IT MAY BE SPENT AS YOU WISH REGARDLESS OF REASON.

THE COURT HAVING READ THE LESSONS OF “LYNCH” REFUSES TO PLAY THE ROLE OF THE GRINCH!

THERE IS ROOM IN THIS COUNTRY AND IN ALL OUR HEARTS TOO FOR DIFFERENT CONVICTIONS AND A DAY OFF TOO!"
"Lynch," is the Supreme Court case, Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). Although a little cutesy, the Court's poem actually does a decent job of laying out its rationale (and they even included a case citation).

The Court applied the (in)famous "Lemon test" from Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971):
"First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion."
The Court's resolution of the three prongs is foreshadowed by their poem.

First, Christmas serves secular purposes, including the accommodation of the "calendar of public activities." Second, the holiday is not primarily advancing or inhibiting religion - it is "recognizing the cultural significance of the holiday." Third, and finally, the Court could not find the requisite entanglement by merely closing federal buildings and declaring a holiday. The Court noted that federal employees can observe the holiday as they please and are not required to participate in any religious activities.

The Court dealt with a few other issues (standing, and equal protection) before dismissing the case against Christmas. The Court was in a tough position. On the one hand, it couldn't declare that Christmas is simply a secular holiday about shopping and cutting down pine trees (holding against the Christian faith)... on the other hand it couldn't describe it as a celebration of the birth of Christ (endorsing Christianity). Instead it walked the line, ultimately declining to, as the Court itself describes it, "play the role of the Grinch."

Image: Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza, New York, 2006. Author: Alsandro - Under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.