The latter part of the year in the United States is affectionately known as the "holiday season" and less affectionately known as the "silly season." This is the time of year when we experience a cluster of holidays - it starts off slowly with Halloween
, picks up speed with Thanksgiving, and as we approach the end of the year, we move quickly with Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, and sometimes Ramadan
. This holiday season is heavily structured with tradition: trick-or-treating, family dinners, Christmas shopping, and of course rancorous lawsuits. What would American holidays be without church/state lawsuits?
Surely the most obvious and divisive of the holiday questions is that of religious displays in public. These generate the most discussion, the most debate, and of course the most lawsuits - including a couple of high-profile Supreme Court cases. These disagreements are never conducted or settled very amicably, but the real tragedy lies in the fact that these debates don't really need to occur in the first place. Throughout America, even the smallest towns usually have at least one large church and/or synagogue either on or close to the main thoroughfare.
Traditionally, public schools in America have been very explicit in their celebration of the holiday season - for students, it was a Christmas holiday season, a Christmas break, and celebratory events were specifically oriented towards Christmas. So long as America has been predominantly Christian in composition, such a focus went unchallenged and even unnoticed by the majority. But the times are changing, and the assumptions of the past are no longer adequate to the reality of the present.
Americans all over the country in all walks of life look forward to getting a day off on December 25, a day which has traditionally (and almost certainly erroneously) been celebrated as the birth day of Jesus Christ, savior for all Christians. What's wrong with that? Nothing, really — except possibly the fact that it is a holiday which is legally recognized/mandated by our government. It certainly appears as though our government has taken the stance of officially endorsing a holy day of one particular religion.
Quite often, debates about the appropriate relationship between religion and government involved the appropriate place of religion in the so-called “Public Square.” This public square might be meant literally, as in a public location open to all citizens, or it might be meant metaphorically, referencing the public spaces, events, and occasions where we all come together. Sadly, those who favor greater intermingling of religion and government fail to understand the nature of the public square.
One of the common arguments raised by those who object to the limitations placed upon how the government accommodates religious beliefs is that such limitations are an expression of hostility. Is that true? Does a strict separation of church and state result in a "naked public square
" — a public square without religious speech?
A relatively recent facet of the holiday season is the holiday lawsuit, where one aggrieved party objects to some aspect of the holidays being endorsed or supported by the government and asks to have it stopped, arguing that it is a violation of the separation of church and state. The government, citing the activity as a tradition (even if it's not that old), refuses to stop, and so the matter goes to court. Can the government fund religious displays during religious holidays? Can the government give employees religious holidays as paid vacation days? Can public schools fund religious holiday programs? Find out what the courts have decided.